Reefer Madness Cannabis Propaganda History

Reefer Madness 2024: Why Cannabis Is Still Stigmatized Today

For many, cannabis has become as normal as buying a six-pack of beer on a Friday or a melatonin supplement to help with sleep. It’s a part of happy hour, reading hour, at-home spa time, and every yoga session/house cleaning in between. All kinds of people have incorporated the plant into their lifestyle in a variety of ways. Not all people, though. 

Although 24 U.S. states have legalized cannabis for recreational use, and 38 have legalized it for medical use, cannabis is not totally normalized in 2024. From politicians on the Senate floor to neighbors complaining to landlords about cannabis smell, there remain many people who still see the plant as a dangerous drug, or at least a negative habit to avoid. There are very educated people who, because of some aspect of their background and past experiences, are simply still scared of this plant and being associated with it. 

Why are some people still against cannabis, despite all the promising medical potential and positive effects of legal cannabis business? Because these roots of stigma run deep. They started over 100 years ago, and they’ve been reinforced by governments around the world, the media, and pop culture every decade since. 

To understand why the stigma around cannabis endures and how we might overcome it, we have to look back in time, look at how immigration impacted American culture through the century, and how the traumas of the War on Drugs continue to reverberate through multiple generations. 

Rooted in Racism

Up until the 1930s, cannabis and hemp were normal parts of American life. It was sold in pharmacies as a pain reliever and anticonvulsant, and hemp varietals were grown to make ropes and textiles. George Washington grew hemp at Mount Vernon for utilitarian purposes like canvas bags and fishing nets, and prior to that, numerous Native tribes cultivated the plant for textiles as well. There were “hashish parlors” in major cities alongside opium dens, and “hemp cigarettes” were popular amongst Mexican soldiers and East Coast musicians alike. Cannabis became prescription-only in many states between 1880 and 1930 as regulation started to ramp up. In 1914, one of the first recorded cannabis raids happened in California’s Sonoratown neighborhood, a Mexican-American community in Los Angeles.

That raid highlighted a growing tension in that part of the country as more Mexicans immigrated to the U.S. following the 1910 Mexican Revolution. Larger commercial farms were hiring more Mexican laborers, fostering resentment from smaller farms. The same issues were happening with more affordable Chinese and Japanese laborers elsewhere on farms and railroad projects. There was a wave of nativism hitting parts of American society—the policy of protecting the interests of native-born inhabitants against those of immigrants. During this time of Prohibition, when alcohol was made illegal, intoxicants like opiates and cannabis got grouped in with alcohol as bad things, all of which were positioned by some to be pastimes of immigrants. “Marijuana”—a Mexican word—was associated with Mexicans, and that made it scarier to those nativists concerned with the rates of immigration. 

When Harry Anslinger became head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930, he ran with that association, declaring this plant causes madness and violence. Under his lead, the FBN produced propaganda films supporting that narrative and Anslinger fed sensationalist ideas to the press for headlines about the violent consequences of cannabis. Anslinger’s work paved the way for the film Reefer Madness to come out in 1936, an over-the-top, anti-cannabis exploitation film made by a church group and intended to teach parents about the dangers of cannabis use. The plot shows various extreme consequences of one puff of a joint—flunking out of school, attempted rape, murder, insanity. One year later, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 passed, and the possession of cannabis has been federally illegal ever since. 

Reefer Madness was screened all over the country throughout the 1940s and ‘50s under various titles, and other anti-cannabis propaganda films followed. Newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst used his empire of newspapers to support Anslinger’s efforts to demonize the plant, spreading additional public perception linking cannabis and violent crimes. These were the visuals and headlines that introduced cannabis to our grandparents.

Cultural Clashes

Those paranoid and fearful perspectives towards the plant were repeated to the American youth of the 1950s and 1960s in and out of school. For new immigrants arriving in the U.S., it was a negative thing to fiercely avoid if you wanted to assimilate and gain good standing in your new home. 

“Our parents and generations before them were told that cannabis has no health benefits, it's a bad drug, it's poison, etc.,” says Christina Wong, a cannabis writer and talented baker of creative cannabis-infused goods. “They were told it'll fry your brain, that you'll be a burnout and a loser, and other propaganda that started with Reefer Madness in the U.S. and spread across the world. Imagery reinforced that negative stereotype in TV, movies, and news outlets.” 

Wong also collaborates with Chef Wendy Zeng on a culture, food, and cannabis collective for the Asian American and Pacific Islander community called Mogu Magu. Inspired by Magu, a hemp goddess shown in ancient art across multiple Asian countries, this contemporary exploration of cannabis in Asian communities aims to open up conversations and awareness of the contradictory challenges for those still burdened with cultural stigmas but interested in this plant. In addition to negative stereotypes in pop culture, Wong noted how minority populations—particularly Black communities—are more likely to have had negative experiences with law enforcement.

“We also have to acknowledge that unfair and antiquated systems were created to punish people of color,” says Wong. “For some communities, it unfairly puts them at risk of being arrested and serving prison time, or having their children taken away.” 

For Black and Brown communities, it can be twice as hard to overcome long-held stereotypes, because the stakes are simply higher than, say, white college kids smoking up a dorm room. The statistics are not in their favor.

She points to octagenarian Chinese grandmas who protested cannabis dispensaries opening in San Francisco's Chinatown. “They fear that their children and grandchildren will become addicted or fall into a life of crime and get arrested, and no longer be able to get work to support their families or care for their elderly aging parents. They think they are protecting their community by keeping weed out of it.”

The War on Drugs and the DARE Generation

Although the government’s messaging has evolved over the years, the same fears have been impressed upon younger generations through to today. Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No!” campaign echoes in many ears from Generation X. Millennials experienced DARE programs in school—”Drug Abuse Resistance Education”—that introduced cannabis as a dangerous gateway drug that leads to harder drugs. After school, kids were exposed to reruns of savvy marketing campaigns on TV in between their favorite shows. Unless your parents were intentional about exposing you to alternative philosophies about plant medicine, this was the norm.

“I took the DARE program embarrassingly seriously,” recalls Jess, a recent newcomer to the cannabis realm at age 34. “I stayed away from all substances until I was 21 and didn’t try cannabis until it was legal in my state. The way I was taught to think about cannabis from school and by my parents and community was that it was dangerous, immoral, and the sign of someone having lost their way. I thought it was a gateway drug that hurt your body. I was fully convinced by the propaganda about cannabis.” 

Jess suffered from extreme anxiety for most of her life, and it wasn’t until she read about its potential power to help combat her anxiety that she started to question if she’d been misled.

“A friend gave me a low-dose edible to try, and I felt a modicum of relief, basically for the first time,” recalls Jess. “The edges on everything were softer. From there, I started incorporating CBD capsules and then vaping. It’s been the most potent tool I have found to help myself get through the day. Cannabis turns down the volume on my anxiety so that I can actually get things done. It’s been life-changing.”

Even though Jess has experienced positive results and has incorporated capsules and vaping into her life, she’s still not 100% comfortable consuming flower. She finds that the fragrant, smoky act of consuming flower retains the negative stereotypes in a stronger way. 

“Smoking flower was something I avoided for a long time because of fear and lingering stigma. The stereotype of ‘the pothead’ with glazed eyes in a haze of smoke kept me away. I don’t want to be seen as irresponsible; a stereotypical lazy stoner. But the lure of the benefits of whole-plant medicine drew me to try smoking flower for the first time, and I’m happy to report that getting that wide range of cannabinoids and terpenes is helping my anxiety more than vaping or edibles has,” says Jess.

Jess is not alone. So many people are burdened with shame, on top of the fear and negativity associated with this plant. In her case, it was desperation for relief from her anxiety that got her to open her mind to cannabis as something other than a dangerous drug. For those without that physical and mental motivation, imagine how long it will take for them to read between the lines to learn more.

“The image of an egg in a frying pan and the sticky tagline of ‘this is your brain on drugs’ was imprinted on so many at a young age,” says Wong. “It takes time and facts to undo these harmful learned belief systems.”

Shedding The Stigma For Good

Perhaps the largest contributor to cannabis remaining so stigmatized is the fact that cannabis is still a federally illegal drug. It’s still categorized as a Schedule 1 drug alongside heroin, ecstasy, and LSD. Schedule 1 drugs are considered to have no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse, both of which are not true about cannabis. This is part of the reason why the Department of Health and Human Services has recommended the DEA reschedule the plant to Schedule 3—we’re still waiting for a final verdict on possible rescheduling. 

Better yet, the government could deschedule cannabis. Many argue it shouldn’t qualify as a controlled substance if alcohol doesn’t. Without a shift in the federal government’s treatment of this plant, we can only normalize to a certain point. It’s long overdue—70% of U.S. adults favor legalization, and that number is trending upward. The proof is in the pudding—as more states legalize and more people are able to access quality cannabis, more people experience the truth about this plant as a positive tool for stress relief, pain relief, mental health, as a healthy alternative to alcohol-fueled downtime, and so much more.

Since Wong had started working in the cannabis space, her mom didn’t want to hear about it. Then Wong gave her some hemp CBD balm to treat an injured wrist, and her mom admitted that it helped. Wong recently gifted her mom a tin of cannabis-infused tea bags with 20mg CBD and 3mg THC per tea bag, and “her eyes lit up as she peppered me with questions,” says Wong. 

Every day, more people open their minds to cannabis. Every day, more people start asking questions and looking online to read more information. Every day, the stigma fades a little bit more. It all starts with a conversation—and letting go of the fear.

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