Marijuana’s History: A Deeper Look into Reefer Madness

Marijuana's history is quite interesting, especially in comparison to the rapid growth in the industry today. We have looked deeper into the reefer ma...

Marijuana is thought to have soothing effects, relaxing the body and easing the mind. However, between the 1900’s and the 1930’s, marijuana was thought to bring about aggressive behavior, much like that of alcohol. Here is the story about marijuana’s history.


In a podcast “Backstory with the American History Guys”, guest speaker Isaac Campos, a professor at the University of Cincinnati, describes the Mexican attitude toward with the use of marijuana. Prior to 1930, numerous stories appeared in Mexican newspaper describing the erratic behavior of men called “marijuanos.” Newspapers told stories of these men becoming violent under the influence of marijuana, associating madness with its consumption, leading to crime and disorder in Mexico.

Due to the proximity of Mexico and its fearful stories, the marijuanos contributed to America’s hate for the plant. Because of the printed publications of the marijuanos aggressive behavior, “Mexico consistently came out against drug reform in the United States,” says Campos.

These ideas of destructive behavior due to marijuana consumption eventually lead to American reform against the flower in a movement most commonly known as “Reefer Madness.”

The Jazz Scene

In the 1930s, African American males were quickly turning the jazz scene into something culturally acceptable within the black community. According to the general consensus of while males, activities surrounding the jazz culture included sex, drugs, alcohol and marijuana. Of the drugs preferred, marijuana was considered the easiest, most enjoyable way to relax and enjoy the music. Many white males had the idea that the sexual appeal of the men that used marijuana causes white women to swoon. Young white men thought these musicians were using their grass as a “date rape” drug that would make intercourse with white women that much easier.

Marijuana’s History

Aside from the cultural influence, marijuana was used as viable medicine in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It was said to ease the pain from rabies, rheumatism, epilepsy and tetanus. The most common form of administering cannabis was through a tincture, cannabis mixed with grain alcohol, taken orally. Another use of cannabis was a substitute to opium. In a testimony, Dr. H. A. Hare recalls the beneficial effects of cannabis, stating “patients, whose most painful symptom has been mental trepidation, may become more happy or even hilarious.”

Unfortunately, White America appeared to be more unsettled with its effects on young men and women than its medicinal uses. A key figure within the movement to reform this drug was Harry Anslinger. Born of German descent, Anslinger was a wholesome caucasian male bent on stopping the violence marijuana had created. He recalled one instance in his childhood that seemed to be at the root of his hatred toward cannabis. He was sent by a neighbor to the nearest drugstore for a package of morphine. The neighbor’s wife, a morphine addict, seemed to be in a rage of pain. After purchasing the drug and bringing it home, Anslinger said he never forgot the screams of agony heard by the neighbor’s wife due to withdrawal symptoms or how quickly the pain turned into bliss after receiving a dose. He also couldn’t fathom why a twelve-year old boy was allowed to purchase such a harmful drug. This account attributed greatly toward his Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which put a hefty tax on the sale and distribution of cannabis. With Anslinger’s behind the act, the marijuana and hemp industry was brought to a standstill. That is some marijuana history.

Reefer Madness

The movie, Reefer Madness, was the number one contribution that helped Anslinger denounce the effects of marijuana on a social level. Reefer Madness is a Louis J. Gasnier movie that depicts the lunacy brought upon by marijuana. According to IMDB, it is fictionalizes “cautionary tales featuring highly exaggerated takes on the use of marijuana. A trio of drug dealers lead innocent teenagers to become addicted to “reefer” cigarettes by holding wild parties with jazz music.” Though Reefer Madness may have begun as a simple film, it quickly escalated into a fearful ideology that was thought, at the time, to account for the decline of White American morals.

William Randolph Hearst, a powerful newspaper owner in the 1930s, furthered this ideology through his publications. Hearst began printing stories about the “evils of marijuana,” creating more hysteria among the majority of America. Hearst, a well-known racist, despised the ethnic minority class, blaming them for violent crimes and rapes. Throughout the 1930s, Hearst, along with DuPont family, convinced American families, through movies, books and pamphlets, that marijuana was evil and should be outlawed.

The propaganda worked. White America had adopted “Reefer Madness” as truth.

What We Know Now

The years following the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 were seemingly quiet. Woodstock, Cheech and Chong and other cultural influences, however, helped America see that marijuana is not an incapacitating drug that fries or makes young white women “loose.” Thanks to the intelligence of the 21st century, many states can now reap the benefits of flower and enjoy its blissful effects.

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