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Reefer Madness

A series of anti-marijuana propaganda films and books released in the 1930s helped fuel hysteria about cannabis.

In 1937, the United States established the Marijuana Tax Act which, in practice, made cannabis illegal. In order to win favourable public opinion for this Act, the American government initiated an intense media offensive that has become legendary in the history of marijuana legislation.

devil's weed

Film poster of The Devil’s Weed, 1949.

Publicity poster for the film Assassin of Youth, 1937.

Publicity poster for the film Assassin of Youth, 1937.

Anti cannabis lobby

Creating hysteria about cannabis

In 1937, the United States established the Marijuana Tax Act which, in practice, made cannabis illegal. In order to win favourable public opinion for this Act, the American government initiated an intense media offensive that has become legendary in the history of marijuana legislation. 

Harry Anslinger, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, provided the impetus with the biased article titled ‘Assassin of Youth’ in The American Magazine (1937), in which he wrote: “Here indeed is the unknown quantity among narcotics… No one knows, when he places a marijuana cigarette to his lips, whether he will become a philosopher, a joyous reveler in a musical heaven, a mad insensate, a calm philosopher, or a murderer.” The aim of the anti-cannabis campaign was clear: to terrify the American public and in doing so, to create support for the ban on marijuana.

In the 1930s, a number of films were produced containing hysterical anti-marijuana propaganda. Of these, Marijuana (1936), Assassin of Youth (1937, named after Anslinger’s article) and Reefer Madness (1936) are the most famous. The message of these rather one-dimensional and melodramatic films was clear – the ‘devil’s herb’ transforms people into violent and sexually uninhibited monsters: “Marijuana is a short cut to the insane asylum.” Harry Anslinger laid it on even thicker when he said: “Marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death.”

On display in our museums

In our museums in Amsterdam and Barcelona, advertisements, articles, novels and film posters are on display which stand testament to this ‘madness’, including a series of flamboyant film posters (which truly are beautifully designed!) and various rare pulp novels with titles such as Marijuana Girl; Musk Hashish and Blood; and Reefer Boy.

This early prohibition instigated the War on Drugs, although that term would only be coined by American President Richard Nixon in 1971.

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