Reefer Madness: Exploring the Cannabis Hysteria of the 1930s

The Great Depression had plunged 1930s America into economic despair, and prohibition was still a fresh scar on the country. During this time, the nation was steeped in hysteria, fueled by sensationalist media, intense political propaganda, as well as serious, deep-seated prejudices. This wave of hysteria is now often referred to as “Reefer Madness” and had a profound impact on the War on Drugs and marijuana policy.

Post-prohibition, cannabis – along with other psychoactive substances – experienced a void in its regulation. Marijuana, as a result, was often used for a variety of purposes, from medicine to industry.

Origins of cannabis hysteria

In the early 1900s, the United States experienced significant cultural shifts, with urbanisation and the emergence of a more diverse society. These changes raised concerns among some segments of the population about the erosion of traditional values and the impact of urban life on morality.

The era of alcohol prohibition (1920-1933) had created a significant market for alternative substances, including cannabis. As alcohol became illegal, some individuals turned to cannabis for recreational use.

Sensationalist media outlets played a significant role in spreading misinformation – or at least poorly researched information – about cannabis. In these reports, cannabis was portrayed as a dangerous, mind-altering drug responsible for all sorts of heinous crimes.

The fear-mongering of cannabis was often mixed up with anti-immigrant sentiment. Many Mexican immigrants brought their cultural use of cannabis to the United States, and this was portrayed as a serious harm to American society. The media and political figures (such as Harry Anslinger) exploited this fear to promote their agendas.

Yellow Journalism

Yellow journalism, often referred to as “yellow press” or “sensational journalism,” is a type of media that prioritises sensationalism, exaggeration, and the use of eye-catching headlines to capture public attention and increase newspaper circulation.

This style of journalism is characterised by its focus on sensational and often emotionally charged stories, rather than objective reporting. Yellow journalism gained prominence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and played a significant role in shaping public opinion around recreational drugs during that period.

Newspapers would use bold, attention-grabbing headlines like “New Drug Menace Sweeps the Nation!” to spark fear and polarise readers. These headlines often exaggerated the effects of cannabis use and its alleged consequences.

Newspapers also employed emotionally charged language within their work to elicit strong reactions from readers.Stories depicted cannabis users as deranged, violent, and morally corrupt individuals. The use of words like “menace,” “killer weed,” and “degenerate” aimed to create a sense of panic and moral outrage.

Anslinger and racial bias

Harry Anslinger, the first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, was a pivotal figure in stoking the “Reefer Madness” hysteria. He used his position to lobby for anti-cannabis legislation, culminating in the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. This act effectively criminalised cannabis and led to a significant decline in its use and distribution.

Anslinger recognised the potential of anti-cannabis legislation as a means to expand the scope and influence of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. By campaigning against cannabis, he could justify the agency’s existence and secure more resources to fight what he presented as a significant threat to the nation.

Furthermore, the paper and textile industries of the 1930s had a vested interest in maintaining the dominance of wood-based paper production over hemp-based paper. Hemp, a variety of cannabis, was a sustainable and cost-effective source of paper, which posed a threat to the wood pulp industry. Anslinger’s campaign against cannabis served the interests of these influential industries.

Anslinger was a staunch opponent of any efforts to decriminalise or regulate recreational drugs. He believed that drug abuse was a moral failing and criminal activity, and he was resolute in his determination to maintain a strict prohibitionist stance. Cannabis decriminalisation was seen as a direct challenge to his anti-drug agenda.

This strong demonisation of the drug led to racial and cultural biases. The plant was associated with minority communities, further fueling the hysteria. Hispanic and Mexican communities were disproportionately targeted by anti-cannabis laws, resulting in unjust arrests and incarcerations.
Anslinger also portrayed African Americans as users of cannabis and framed their drug use as a menace to society. He used racial stereotypes to depict African Americans as prone to violent and irrational behaviour when under the influence of marijuana. This perpetuated negative stereotypes and led to increased racial prejudice.

Overall, Anslinger’s approach was punitive, focusing on criminalising drug addiction rather than treating it as a public health issue. As said, this approach disproportionately affected minority individuals, who were more likely to face arrest and incarceration for drug-related offences, leading to long-lasting negative consequences for their communities.

One of the key pros of Anslinger’s approach was the establishment of federal oversight in drug regulation. Prior to his tenure, drug regulation was largely handled at the state and local levels. Anslinger’s efforts led to a more centralised federal approach to drug policy, ensuring uniformity and consistency in regulation.

His leadership brought a significant focus on drug enforcement, leading to more resources and attention being devoted to combating drug-related crimes. This emphasis helped law enforcement agencies develop expertise and specialised units to address drug-related issues.

However, some critics argue that Anslinger’s emphasis on cannabis and sensationalist campaigns diverted attention and resources away from more serious drug-related issues, such as the opioid crisis. They contend that this misdirection may have hampered effective drug policy.


Reefer Madness and lasting effects

“Cannabis propaganda” films played a pivotal role in shaping public perception. These films depicted cannabis users as morally corrupt individuals descending into madness, violence, and depravity. Such portrayals further fueled the fear surrounding the drug.

The propaganda film Reefer Madness was originally titled “Tell Your Children.” Directed by Louis J. Gasnier, the film was intended to serve as a cautionary tale about the dangers of marijuana use. The subject matter of the film revolves around the portrayal of marijuana (commonly referred to as “reefer”) as a highly dangerous and destructive substance, causing madness, violence, and moral decay among its users.

The film tells the story of a group of young people who become involved with marijuana. It portrays them as innocent, well-behaved individuals until they are introduced to marijuana by a morally corrupt character. After using the drug, they quickly descend into madness, criminal behaviour, and violence. The film highlights a series of exaggerated and melodramatic scenarios, such as a hit-and-run accident, manslaughter, attempted rape, and even murder, all attributed to marijuana use.

Reefer Madness is the origin of the cultural inclination to view cannabis as a “gateway” drug to a life of depravity and criminality. The film suggests that even a single encounter with the drug can lead to a complete moral and mental breakdown. It depicts users as uncontrollable and unhinged, engaging in erratic and dangerous behaviour.

The Reefer Madness era had a lasting impact on cannabis policy in the United States. Cannabis remained illegal for decades, and the War on Drugs, initiated in the 1970s, continued to disproportionately affect minority communities.

It is essential to reflect on the lessons of the Reefer Madness era. While cannabis does have potential risks, it is crucial to base policy decisions on evidence and compassion rather than unfounded hysteria. Furthermore, cannabis addiction is a serious concern for some individuals. Withdrawal symptoms and marijuana detox can be challenging, and addiction treatment is a necessary resource for those who need help.

The “Reefer Madness” era of the 1930s serves as a cautionary tale about the consequences of sensationalism, racial biases, and political agendas in shaping drug policy. As society re-evaluates its stance on cannabis, it is essential to consider the historical context and the harm that can result from unfounded hysteria. UKAT stands ready to assist those grappling with cannabis addiction, recognising that addiction is a serious concern that deserves compassionate and effective treatment. Contact us today for more information on how we can help you towards sobriety.

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