Reefer Madness History
by Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney
As anyone who has ever been to college can attest, Reefer Madness is the Rosetta Stone of midnight movies, the standard by which all others are judged (with the notable exception of Rocky Horror). Reefer Madness is a morality tale of how Reefer Addiction ruins the life of its young protagonist and gets a lot of other people killed, sexually compromised and committed to lunatic asylums. In the black-and-white world of Reefer Madness, one puff of the Demon Weed instantly transforms the smoker into a horny, violent, cackling weed freak, twitching insanely with the spastic abandon of Crispin Glover on a pancake griddle. It's a bad movie, but a gloriously bad movie -- thus the long-term appeal.
Reefer Madness began its cinematic life as a 1936 cautionary film entitled Tell Your Children. It was financed by a small church group, and was intended to scare the living bejeezus out of every parent who viewed it. Soon after the film was shot, however, it was purchased by the notorious exploitation film maestro Dwain Esper (Narcotic, Marihuana, Maniac), who took the liberty of cutting in salacious insert shots and slapping on the sexier title of Reefer Madness, before distributing it on the exploitation circuit. Esper was an absolutely notorious figure who would do things like stealing unattended prints of studio films out of projection booths and film exchanges, and then physically drive them from small town exhibitor to small town exhibitor until the authorities caught up with him. A delightful, poignant and detailed portrayal of this lunatic opportunist is featured in exploiteer Dave Friedman's autobiography, A Youth in Babylon, which is a book every cult movie or pop culture enthusiast ought to read.
After a brief run, the film lay forgotten for several decades. There was no concept of after market in those days, especially for films that existed outside the confines of the studio system, and were therefore considered "forbidden fruit." For this reason, neither Esper nor the original filmmakers bothered to copyright the movie, and it eventually fell into the public domain.
Enter Keith Stroup, founder of NORML (Nation Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws). In 1971, this enterprising gentleman up bought a print of Reefer Madness for $297, cleaned it up and started showing it at pro-pot festivals. It was gigantic hit. Distributing Reefer Madness to college campuses of the 1970’s helped bankroll the burgeoning film company New Line Cinema, which today is a major player in the Hollywood film industry. Today, the film is a cult phenomenon dwarfed only by The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and "Reefer Madness" is a bona fide catch phrase.
NOTE: Much of the historical information above was culled from conversations with actress Thelma White (the original Mae) and documentary filmmaker Ray Greene, whose excellent film Schlock! deals with the subject of exploitation cinema. Boundless thanks to them both.