Before President Richard Nixon declared the “war on drugs,” before First Lady Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign, and before the infamous “this is your brain on drugs” TV ad featuring an egg and a skillet, there was “Reefer Madness.”
A church group produced the 1936 American propaganda film to warn people about the purported dangers of cannabis. It was just one part of a concerted effort in the 1930s to criminalize cannabis and other narcotics.
But despite its original intent, the film has since become known for its campy, false, and over-the-top portrayal of the plant’s supposed effects on young people.
It’s become a prominent and influential piece of American media, though not for the reasons its producers hoped. In fact, “reefer madness” is often used today as a sort of shorthand for any messaging or actions against drug use seen as hysterical, unnecessary, or false.
Here are five interesting facts about “Reefer Madness” that you may not know:
The original title of the film was “Tell Your Children.”
Would “Reefer Madness” be the cannabis cultural touchstone it is today without its sensational name? We’ll never know. You have to admit, though, that it’s a much catchier title than the original one French-American film director Louis J. Gasnier gave it.
“Tell Your Children” was the name of the small church group that financed the film—and the inspiration for its title.
That quickly changed when husband-and-wife exploitation filmmakers and distributors Dwain and Hildagarde Esper bought the film (though Dwain was the face of the operation). They recut the film, adding more bawdy scenes, and renamed it “Reefer Madness” for a more salacious vibe.
“Reefer Madness” was a flop—and the founder of NORML rediscovered it decades later.
The Espers distributed the new cut on the exploitation film circuit under different names, like “The Burning Question,” where it performed pretty poorly and was quickly shelved.
Around 1970, the film was rediscovered by the founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws — an advocacy group still influential today. In 1973, founder Keith Stroup told The New York Times that NORML had attained the rights to distribute the film, which by then was seen as humorous and ironic. The film grossed about $100,000 through showings in about 20 cities on college campuses and traditional theaters, Stroup said.
Today, the film is in the public domain.
True crimes likely inspired the “Reefer Madness” sensationalism.
There was a strong pro-prohibitionist movement in the 1930s, primarily led by anti-pot crusader Harry Anslinger, the first head of the newly created Federal Bureau of Narcotics, in 1930. The FBN enlisted self-proclaimed cannabis experts to convince the public (and juries) that marijuana use led to violent crime.
But it was an actual ax murder of five in Tampa, Florida, that supposedly served as the true inspiration for “Reefer Madness.”
Florida man Victor Licata killed both of his parents and all three of his siblings with the crude weapon in 1933, purportedly while in a cannabis-created delirium. That latter false belief gave him the nickname “Dream Slayer” and provided leaders like Anslinger the ammunition they needed to criminalize cannabis.
A film called “Madness,” based on more than a decade of research into these killings and their impact on American drug policy, is being produced by Florida native Devin Muller, who wrote and is directing it. The COVID-19 pandemic held up the film’s production.
“Reefer Madness” has established itself as a pop-culture staple.
From references in stoner-buddy flicks like “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle” to made-for-TV musical remakes starring Kristen Bell, there is no doubt that this small-budget exploitation flick has had a big impact on American culture—for better or worse.
Scientific research has widely debunked the film’s portrayal of cannabis as a dangerous and deadly substance.
Despite decades of prohibition on federally funded research, scientists and researchers are finding that weed is the safest of all drugs used recreationally. Experts and regular citizens are regularly discovering its medical benefits as legalization sweeps the nation. Two more states adopted adult-use cannabis programs in the November 2022 elections, and the movement shows no signs of slowing down.