Teens high on “the weed rooted in hell” go wild in the midnight movie classic “Reefer Madness”

By on March 28, 2019

If the first time you watched Reefer Madness — the granddaddy of all drug scare films — was on cable TV back in the 1980s, you probably saw it on “Night Flight,” as we aired the film regularly during our original ’80s run on the USA channel.

Today, you can watch this unintentionally hilarious and campy 65-minute quasi-docudrama (its legal to view in all fifty U.S. states) over on Night Flight Plus.

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Reefer Madness was initially financed in 1938 as an educational drug scare film by a church group (of course) with the title Tell Your Children.

The same film — which probably always was outdated and unhip — was distributed in 1939 as The Burning Question, and later as Dope Addict, Doped Youth (Victims of Marihuana) and Love Madness — before earning its eventually permanent grindhouse-friendly title Reefer Madness in 1947.

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Reefer Madness tells what happens when three high-schoolers succumb to peer pressure and smoke pot.

Their downfall leads to them committing crimes they wouldn’t have otherwise committed had they not puffed on strange wacky tobaccy-loaded cigarettes.

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Right up front we’re warned:

“The motion picture you are about to witness may startle you. It would not have been possible, otherwise, to sufficiently emphasize the frightful toll of the new drug menace which is 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!”

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There’s much more to that scrolling foreward, after which we’re forced to endue another rambling prologue, this one spoken by principal “Dr. Alfred Carroll” (Josef Forte) who lectures grandparent-age parents at PTA meeting at Truman High School.

Carroll recalls a recent incident involving three students who look they’re in their thirties: “Jimmy” (Warren McCollum), “Bill” (Kenneth Craig), and Bill’s girl “Mary” (Dorothy Short).

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They kids get hooked on reefer after attending a drug party with a couple of middle-age pushers, “Mae Coleman” (Thelma White) and “Jack Perry” (Carleton Young).

We then see overtly-melodramatic re-creations where Mae and Jack are additionally aided by a twitchy pothead named “Ralph” (played with over-the-top glee by Dave O’Brien) and blonde femme fatale “Blanche” (Lillian Miles).

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Jimmy is later persuaded by Jack to drive over to his dealer’s house to get more drugs, but he is already so high he hits a pedestrian before speeding back to the party.

Mary, meanwhile, is sexually assaulted by Ralph, high and already cackling like a madman.

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Bill’s in the next room, though, fucking Blanche, and when he returns to see Ralph attacking Mary, a fight breaks out, a gun is pulled, and Mary ends up getting shot by Jack in the back.

There’s more to the story about these three unfortunate youths gone wild while high on “the weed rooted in hell.”

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Read more about Reefer Madness below.

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Although its almost too ridiculous to believe, everything below about Reefer Madness is the absolute truth, we swear on a stack of High Times.

Reefer Madness — written by Arthur Hoerl, who two years earlier had screenwritten Enlighten Thy Daughter, sold as “A Smashing Indictment of Parental Prudery!” — pretended to offer a serious social message.

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However, its lurid depiction of glamorized sex, crime and drug use sensationalized a subject its filmmakers quite clearly knew nothing about: the perils of smoking the “devil’s weed.”

Speaking of “peril,” this was the last movie directed by Louis Gasnier, who had directed those melodramatic “The Perils of Pauline” matinee serials.

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Just a few years after it was first shown, low-budget producer Dwain Esper purchased the film and expanded its message with newly-shot scenes.

Its popularity led to two more infamous anti-marijuana films, including Esper’s Marihuana and exploitation filmmaker Elmer Clinton’s Assassin of Youth.

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Clinton got the title of his film from an article by U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics commissioner Harry J. Anslinger, who by the mid-’30s was pretty sure that smoking reefer turned kids into sex-crazed homicidal maniacs.

Just a few years earlier — during the years of alcohol prohibition — he’d said that pot wasn’t a problem in America, and it didn’t harm the smoker. In fact, he adamantly said “there is no more absurd fallacy.”

That was before he started saying things like, “The primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races” and “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.” (What a racist fuckhead, right?)

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These anti-marijuana films were soon being used as government-peddled pure propaganda, and were complicit in the passage of Anslinger’s Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which successfully criminalized marijuana in these United States.

Decades later, in the 1960s, Keith Stroup, founder of NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) purchased a public domain print of Reefer Madness for just $297.

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After debuting at a benefit held in May 1972 at Manhattan’s St. Marks cinema, Stroup began screening it to help raise money for NORML at California colleges.

That means the very same film first created to curb the use of marijuana later helped reform the very laws it had helped pass decades earlier.

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By the time Reefer Madness began airing on “Night Flight,” it was already a midnight movie classic due to New Line Cinema founder Robert Shaye’s screenings.

Watching the film high soon became a new kind of rite of passage for wise-cracking ’70s teens who mocked the way marijuana had been treated by their sadly ill-informed grandparents.

Watch Reefer Madness — and why not make it a double-feature drug scare along with Assassin of Youth — on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.