In 1936, a man named Dwain Esper purchased the rights to a film called Tell Your Children. A church group originally financed the film in question. When Mr. Esper purchased said film, he reedited it and added some new footage. The resulting cinematic "triumph" was given a new name; the name by which it is more commonly known by just about every pothead that has ever sucked on the business end of a joint, or coughed a lung out after taking too big of a hit from his or her favorite gurgling bong: Reefer Madness (Cue Toccata And Fugue In D Minor by J. S. Bach.)
At the time, Reefer Madness, the most well known piece of cinematic anti-drug propaganda nowadays, didn't find a willingly receptive audience. Originally told as cautionary morality tale of what happens when young kids get involved in the seedy underbelly of the "drug world", Reefer Madness didn't come into its own until it was discovered by Keith Stroup of NORML in 1971. (1)
Once discovered, it rapidly achieved cult status. This is especially true of those patrons of midnight movies that did their watching in dirty "art" theaters surrounded by a cloud of cannabis-based smoke. While I never personally saw Reefer Madness in this sort of setting, I have seen other cult classics such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show and the height of tack-o-rama, Pink Flamingos by filth-miester supreme, John Waters.
Reefer Madness was remade for the Showtime cable network in the form of an over-the-top musical in 2005.
Reefer Madness As Propaganda
For the purposes of this article, I am going to limit my discussion to the original film. While the musical could also be seen as propaganda, the focus of the musical is to point out hypocrisy, not to get the government to outlaw marijuana. Brevity demands I discuss only one version. Since the original film served as a basis for the musical, it makes sense to analyze the progenitor.
The obvious intent of Reefer Madness was to push for outlawing the possession and use of marijuana. It can be clearly seen that there is intent to "help" the cause of "right" in the film. Through the use of misinformation and emotional appeal, Reefer Madness paints marijuana with a very dark brush. I'll discuss specifics momentarily.
While watching Reefer Madness through the eyes of a baby boomer many years after the fact may be amusing, one has to realize it was produced for an entirely different, and decidedly more provincial audience. The upright citizens surely looked upon the film with shock, and perhaps real disgust...those that saw it.
The images and implications contained in the sixty-five minute black and white original are clearly engineered to be salacious, scandalous, and frightening to its intended audience. By the use of numerous over-the-top (for the time) scenes, the emotions of the target audience were clearly manipulated. It is the use of emotional appeal versus reason and rationality that made Reefer Madness an effective piece of propaganda.
How ironic it is that Reefer Madness is a cult favorite simply because it is so over the top. Most present day Americans realize that the world of Reefer Madness is a world that simply doesn't exist! It also didn't exist then. Nevertheless, Reefer Madness proved to be a potent weapon in the fight to outlaw pot.
Reefer Madness is nothing more than the classic "good vs. evil" (or "Satan vs. God", if you will) morality tale. The characters are simple archetypes. Those characters that are "good" are REALLY good...better than good...absolute moral purity. Those characters that are "bad" are REALLY bad; the devil incarnate, if you will! After all, what's more irrational than the idea of an ongoing fight between god and the devil?
The "god" character is known as Dr. Alfred Carrol. He acts as both a narrator of sorts as well as a character involved in the main story. He is a dry, humorless, stodgy character. He is seemingly motivated by his concern about the problems that are being brought to his school by the neighborhood reefer den. He not only reeks of absolute moral purity, he drips with self-righteousness. Think grouchy curmudgeon with a snooty New England-esc air.