Watching Reefer Madness For the First Time

It’s safe to say that, upon its release, Reefer Madness was intended to be, on some level, serious. It’s a film that was originally financed by a church group as a morality tale about the dangers of marijuana (or “marihuana,” as the film calls it). Whether or not it succeeded in that goal, I can’t speak to, but as it was purchased before release and recut by noted exploitation producer Dwain Esper, it probably instead reached an audience more concerned with seeing a film not approved by the MPAA than having an educational sit-down with their impressionable kids.

It’s also safe to say that, upon its rerelease in 1971, the film was in perfect position to become a cult comedy classic. Like rereleasing, today, an 80s film about the dangers of cell phone radiation or the deadly, deadly internet, 1971 was the perfect year to unleash the baldfaced lies and gross misinformation of Reefer Madness on a country largely (and recently) familiar with how very not-dangerous marijuana actually is. New Line Cinemas, then a fledgling production company, distributed the film to colleges around the country, where it screened for millions of kids who were intimately (and probably actively) aware of which threats pot does and does not pose.

But now we live in a different, third-wave era regarding marijuana use. It is, to the chagrin of the drug war wagers (and to the feigned chagrin of the drug war enforcers), common to the point of ubiquity, legal in several states, unenforced in several more, and the uncensored and uncensured subject of countless films, TV shows and hip-hop tracks. Even crappy CGI kids’ movies make thinly veiled references to it. Weed isn’t just for college hippies interested in ironic rereleases of educational films, it’s for grandmothers with glaucoma, chronic nausea sufferers, and olympic gold medalists. Also, hippies. Suffice to say, the claim that pot causes violent or psychotic side effects has been laughed out of rooms for decades at this point. So is there any place in our day and age for the accidental joke that Reefer Madness tells?

Where the reefer itself is concerned, the answer is “sort of.” On one hand, the execution of the film’s misguided notions of pot use is often pretty amusing — the way the “high-schoolers” (who, as in today’s films, all look to be in their 30s) smoke, dance, laugh uncontrollably and make out each seem like some sort of clueless guess, as if nobody involved with the film had any idea what dancing or necking is — and the fact that they don’t even know what smoking pot looks like is a consistent reminder of the film’s total ignorance. But in many ways, ignorance about pot has left the realm of the comedic — it’s no longer a cool, harmless drug that our parents didn’t know anything about; it’s a common, often legal substance, heavily researched and widely understood (and in fact popularized in this country by our parents). Which of course means that most of the easiest jokes about pot have been made time and time again, and not knowing what marijuana actually does is one of the oldest jokes in the weed book.

And in addition to all this, there’s something disturbing about the vindictiveness and manipulation in the propaganda of Reefer Madness. If anything about the film has stayed current, it’s how unsettling it can be to see the seething anger and unapologetic willingness to fabricate information of a group of people more concerned with prohibition than education. I’m all for keeping kids off drugs, but the baldfaced lies in Reefer Madness remind me just a little too much of this country’s current problems with drug awareness, abstinence education and the like — as if it’s better to scare kids than actually teach them something. It’s a tactic that’s been consistently screwing kids up for generations, so the underlying tone of Machiavellian hatred, while consistently ridiculous, is, for lack of a better word, sort of a buzzkill.

Fortunately, there’s plenty about Reefer Madness to giggle at, even if the main thrust of the film doesn’t have the innocent charm it might once have had. What’s left is the absurdity, the quirks and mistakes the film makes that have less to do with a cast and crew unfamiliar with marijuana and more to do with the head-scratching specifics of a crappy film executed poorly. The fact that everyone from the school principal to the suicidal psychotic weed addict wears a suit and tie, for example. That Mae and Jack, the central “pushers” of the film, have a super-nice house where high-schoolers smoke pot, dance and make out in the expansive, well-decorated, brightly-lit living room, while the two of them eat dinner and smoke cigarettes in the kitchen. Or the malt shop pianist (pretty sure that’s not a thing) who sneaks off to the broom closet to smoke a joint — cut to multiple closeups of him laughing maniacally, and then we never see him again. Or the noble high school principal, who not only delivers the bookend speeches about the dangers of marihuana to a group of PTA members but also is given the heroic tasks, for some reason, of alerting the FBI (!) and acting as a character witness in the main character’s murder trial. To whom, even in 1936, are these familiar paradigms? Why claim that marijuana is sold and used in a treacherous, vorticose speakeasy, essentially an opium den, but decorate it like a Frank Capra set? Why spend so much time with terrible dialogue between characters that have almost no bearing on the story? Why spend the entire second half of the film talking about the murder trial of an unfortunate pot-addicted suspect, but totally drop the plot line where another kid runs over an old man and is never caught?

These are the moments that still provide good laughs, in an MST3K sort of way, moreso than the “that’s not what pot does” stuff. And strangely, it makes Reefer Madness seem, to me, to have more appeal to pot-friendly film folks than to comedy-loving stoners. In a time where ignorance toward pot seems more pointless than square, the broken and misinformed logic about the drug itself doesn’t hit so much. But a crappy film is a crappy film, and that’s always something to delight in.

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Alden Ford is an actor, writer and comedian living in Brooklyn. He performs regularly in NYC with his sketch/improv group Sidecar.

Watching Reefer Madness For the First Time