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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 22nd July 2012

I know where George Lucas got the idea for the scrolling introductory text he used at the start of ‘Star Wars’. I suppose I should call that ‘Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope’ and I should say he may have done the same for the other films in the series but I’ve only ever seen ‘Star Wars’ so that is the only one I know about.

And I know where Dennis Potter got the idea of having adult actors play children that he used in ‘Blue Remembered Hills’. I know both these things because, last evening, I watched ‘Reefer Madness’.1

I realise I’m very much behind the game since this 1936 film has been widely circulated since its rediscovery in 1971. The first comment about it on The Internet Archive dates from February 2004 so it has been universally available for over 8 years. But it was only when someone tweeted the link that I thought about seeing what all the fuss was about.

I’ve been reading some of the things that have been written about it but I haven’t come across anyone writing about the two aspects of the film that most caught my attention and resulted in my opening paragraphs. I’m not going to do a frame by frame review, I’ll look, mostly, at those two points.

George Lucas is said to have got the idea of using scrolling text to introduce his film from ‘Flash Gordon’ rather than ‘Reefer Madness’ but I have to say his text with all its talk of inter-galactic wars and ‘death stars’ is a great deal more believable that the opening text of the film originally entitled ‘Tell Your Children’.

marijuana, Cannabis sativa

The viewer is told that marihuana (the spelling used throughout for what is now almost universally called marijuana, Cannabis sativa) is ‘a violent narcotic’ causing ‘dangerous hallucinations’, ‘the loss of all power to resist physical emotions’ and ‘acts of shocking violence’. Though the film acknowledges that it is fiction it claims to be based on ‘actual research into the results of Marihuana addiction’.

There’s then a useful reminder of the aim of prohibitionists though they often try to deny this, these days. The text says ‘that something must be done to wipe out this ghastly menace’ a reminder that complete eradication has always been the goal.

The story is about the efforts of a medium level drug pusher to corrupt high school students. He uses his girlfriend’s apartment as a drug den for smoking cannabis. She is happy for this to happen with adults but doesn’t like him encouraging young people into the habit. The story centres on what happens to three high school students, a brother and sister and her boyfriend, when they fall into the clutches of the dealer and the film’s villain, an older man who lusts after Mary, the sister.

This setup is what brought Dennis Potter to mind because the actors playing the high school students appear to be in their late 20s. In fact, two are in their early 20s and Mary’s brother, Jimmy, is played by an 18-year old. Ralph, the cannabis 'addict' who lusts after Mary in spite of being ‘a little too old for us’ according to another high school student, is played by an actor who is only three years older than Dorothy Short the actor who plays Mary.

The film was originally made by a church group, what today would be called conservative Christians, and it shows all the signs of being created by people who knew very little about their subject. It was bought by a producer who specialised in ‘exploitation movies’. He added additional salacious scenes to beef it up and may be responsible for most of the unintentional humour. There were several moments that had me laughing out loud.

marijuana, Cannabis sativa

But it is the current relevance of the movie that made me sit down to write this.

The dealer entices the teenagers into using cannabis by meeting them at a bar and inviting them to ‘a party’ at his girlfriend, Mae’s, place. In June this year, the Journal of School Health published ‘Alcohol as a Gateway Drug: A Study of US 12th Graders’2 that found early alcohol use to be the most important route into other substances. Who would have thought that a 1936 anti-marijuana film would demonstrate an important point about young people’s introduction to harmful substances 66 years before science confirmed it?

And the other contemporary point is about the difference between what people think they know and what is.

Though something of a cult classic since the 1970s and though remade in the 21st century as a musical and a movie of the musical,3 I suspect that many more people will have heard of ‘Reefer Madness’ than have seen it. So much of what people believe about psychoactive substances has this same once removed origin. They accept what they are told without looking closer where they would probably find that things are not as they think.

I’m not suggesting that the most obdurate prohibitionist would have an epiphany if they watched this film but I do believe they would acknowledge that it is a ridiculous document.

Unless people see the film, however, many will continue to base their opinions about cannabis on the lies told about it by ‘Reefer Madness’.


1.Reefer Madness The Internet Archive
2.Alcohol as a Gateway Drug: A Study of US 12th Graders (abstract) Journal of School Health Volume 82, Issue 8, pages 371–379, August 2012
3.Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical The Internet Movie Database

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