I was scrolling through the channels on Pluto, not the planet, but the internet TV station, and came across a colorized version of the movie Reefer Madness. The gravity of nostalgia and some GMO Cookies drew me further into the couch, allowing me to view the film again for the first time. After it was over it got me thinking about what kind of effect this movie might have had back in the day. Consider that when Reefer Madness was released in 1936, “talkies” (or movies that didn’t require live piano accompaniment) had only been around for less than a decade. People went to the theater to not only socialize but to be entertained and educated. People were enthralled and no doubt influenced by what they saw on the screen in front of them.
So, along comes this movie that begins with the words, “The motion picture you are about to witness may startle you.” Considering to startle means to cause someone to feel sudden shock or alarm, that’s some pretty heavy stuff for a country less than two decades removed from the end of WWI, three years away from the beginning of the second, and only a year away from the passage of the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act. The crawl on the screen goes on to say that there is a “…new drug menace destroying the youth of America in alarmingly increasing numbers. Marihuana is that drug. A violent narcotic. An unspeakable scourge. The Real Public Enemy Number One!” For someone unfamiliar with cannabis medicines or products, that would be enough to scare the bejesus out of them.
The movie warms up with a preacher-like figure (not surprising since the movie was funded by a church group) conducting a PTA meeting. This authority figure turns out to be a doctor and calls for nationwide compulsory education on the subjects of narcotics. In particular marihuana. Only through enlightenment can the scourge be wiped out. The doctor then reads a letter from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the predecessor to the DEA, claiming marihuana is worse than heroin and opium. Now that the audience’s fear has been sufficiently stoked, dissolve to an apartment. The next hour features corruption of youth and several unspeakable criminal acts that were so unspeakable, my editor actually changed the written descriptions! If what these ‘marihuana addicts’ did caused my editor to change my copy, imagine what parents must have done to their children’s sock drawers as soon as they got home from watching this masterpiece of propaganda.
It wasn’t ‘til the movie graduated to the public domain in the 70’s that opinions about it started to change. Keith Stroup used the film as a fundraiser for NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. He took it on a nationwide tour charging a dollar per person to view it, raising $11,000 in the process. I first saw Reefer Madness in the late 80’s when a bootleg copy on VHS started making the rounds. By that time, the message had aged as poorly as the acting and the film began having a virally opposite effect. Instead of gathering to wipe out the scourge, people got together to get high and laugh their butts off at scenes like the one where the guy abandons the piano bench for an easy chair while requesting the woman behind the keys speed things up.
In 1998, a musical version of the film opened in Los Angeles and throughout the years has been performed on stages in North America, London and Sydney. In 2005, cable channel Showtime turned the stage musical into a movie musical. Lots of familiar faces like Kathryn Hahn, Kristen Bell, Neve Campbell and Alan Cumming play prominent roles. The songs include, “The Brownie Song,” “The Stuff,” and “Jimmy Takes A Hit,” whose opening lyric goes, “Come on, Jimmy. Come on, Jimmy. Suck it down for Sally!” As of this writing, I’m having a hard time remembering who played Sally in any version, but they cover that with the song, “That Old Devil Reefer Took My Memory Away.