Reefer Madness: 1930's Scare Tactic Turned Modern Satire

Last Saturday I witnessed Trustus Theater delivering another raucous performance with Reefer Madness, a musical modeled after a 1936 movie warning parents about the ills of marijuana in the hands of their teenagers. The State’s James Harley explains the plot in his review: “Jimmy Harper…unwittingly is drawn into a ‘reefer den’ by villain Jack Stone, where he inhales and is sent into a downward spiral of depravity and murder.”

The laughs ensue from there as the play engulfs the audience in a parody-filled haze but a semi-serious lesson remains: the play is actually a public service announcement, an educational tool for parents trying to understand the side effects of drug use. Sure, America was still riding on the wings of late 1800s sensationalism in newspapers, advertising and everywhere else, but Reefer Madness demonstrates just how outlandish we became by the 1930s.

Even scarier—big bad government wasn’t heading this one up; a church group, full of honest, God-fearing individuals crafted this outrageous film. I can just see the old ladies directing it now, their large hats teetering with emphasis as they demonstrated to the actors how to simulate lighting a joint. They undoubtedly meant well and scare tactics certainly would’ve been effective at a time when parents’ worst fear was their children reverting to the irreverence of the Roaring ‘20s and government propaganda gearing up to send their sons off for World War II, but you have to question the creators’ respect for the audience. A film meant to “help” the public probably only incited increased paranoia (an actual side effect of marijuana) among parents led to believe the drug directly resulted in sex and murder (fabricated side effects of marijuana). To think this film was probably broadcast in schools, churches and bingo halls across the country is frightening. We’ve advanced somewhat since then, though—one has to admit the infamous “This is Your Brain on Drugs” PSA doesn’t specify marijuana as the sole catalyst for frying our brains like cracked eggs, so we have to assume only the “hard stuff” can accomplish that. Reefer Madness just goes to show, though—when your PSA is still being satirized 72 years later, who are you really helping?