One Toke Over the Line

1938’s Reefer Madness occupies a special place in stoner lore. Originally conceived as an urgent message film about the dangers of the demon weed, it was rediscovered in the sixties and seventies by scruffy, long-haired countercultural types who grooved on the film’s all-around ineptitude, hysterical tone, manic overacting, and patently false portrayal of pot as a Pandora’s Box unleashing a wave of insanity, murder, and sexual assault. Of course, it didn’t hurt the film’s popularity as an unintentional comedy that many of its second-wave viewers were stoned out of their collective gourd while watching it. Pot smokers in that more progressive, open-minded era no doubt delighted in the surreal contrast between the psychotic, aggressive, and out-of-control behavior of the pot smokers onscreen and their own infinitely more mellow experiences with the drug.

Watching Reefer Madness in 2004 is a different, far darker experience. For one thing, it was released April 20 (4/20—get it, dude?) by no less a corporate behemoth than FOX, owned by right-wing gazillionaire Rupert Murdoch. For another thing, FOX has created a cheekily packaged, inexplicably colorized “special addiction” DVD featuring an audio commentary from Mystery Science Theater 3000’s Mike Nelson. Nelson insists early on that he’s here as an expert on bad movies, not on the deplorable practice of smoking marijuana—though it seems mildly incredible that a guy who has made a profession out of wisecracking through cheesy old movies hasn’t inhaled once or twice.

What’s striking today is how far we haven’t come as a society in our attitude toward pot. In fact, we may have ended up where we began. It is remarkable how closely the film’s histrionic anti-pot message is echoed today in the shrill, fundamentally dishonest anti-pot propaganda that’s being pushed on children by, for example, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

The most memorable and disturbing anti-pot ads don’t just recall scenes from Reefer Madness—they practically replicate them. In the film, for example, a previously wholesome, clean-cut American Youth gets hopped up on the wacky tobaccy and obliviously drives over an unfortunate pedestrian, an incident echoed by a notorious Drug-Free America PSA in which stoners on a munchies run pull out from a drive-through window and run over a little girl on her bike.

In another PSA, a pair of stoned teenaged boys exchange baked small talk before one finds his dad’s loaded gun and accidentally shoots his friend, which eerily mirrors a pivotal scene in Reefer Madness in which two stoners wrestling for control of a gun accidentally shoot and kill a woman. It says something profoundly sad about our values that in a scenario in which two stoned kids have access to a loaded gun, marijuana is presented as the villain. In some strange parallel universe (or, say, the Netherlands or Canada), the gun might be considered the real cause for concern.

In America, however, we apparently send children the message that alcohol, cigarettes, and guns are things they should feel free to indulge in at an appropriate age, while marijuana is an evil to be avoided at all costs. (Could this have something to do with the fact that powerful lobbying organizations back the gun, tobacco, and alcohol industries, while pot’s main advocates are belligerent rappers, unlaundered hippies, and Woody Harrelson?) It’s not clear what makes marijuana so much more dangerous and destructive than say, a fifth of Jagermeister, a pack-a-day Camel addiction, or a 9mm Glock.

In the two creepiest anti-pot ads (and there is plenty of competition), marijuana is implicated in the unwanted pregnancy and sexual assault of twelve- or thirteen-year-old girls, a claim that has its historical precedent in Reefer Madness’ depiction of potheads as insatiable, deranged sex fiends who simply won’t take no for an answer. Never mind that a stoned thirteen-year-old boy is more likely to take a nap or launch a full-frontal assault on a family-sized bag of Doritos than pressure a stoned girl into unprotected sex. In the looking-glass world of anti-pot propaganda, naked appeals to emotion will always trump plausibility. Then again, these ads are no more manipulative than commercials for beer—which actually can be implicated in a number of sexual assaults and unwanted pregnancies—that link alcohol to a sense of fun and freewheeling, uninhibited sexuality. And that’s not even mentioning those horrifying ads linking pot smokers to terrorism.

Perhaps what makes these Partnership ads so annoying to a thoughtful person is their artfulness. Reefer Madness’ ineptitude and lunacy make the film easy to dismiss and ridicule. While these ads send the same message—smoking pot leads to sexual assault, shattered lives, and death—they do so in a far more clever fashion. It reminds me of those hyper-ironic ad campaigns in the nineties that insisted the best way to stick it to the man and to express your individuality was to purchase whatever consumer product was being advertised. (Remember Jeremy Davies insisting that a Subaru was like punk rock, only a car?) These ads speak the vernacular of youth and the counterculture, using irony, sarcasm, and quirky, deadpan slice-of-life comedy to deliver a profoundly conservative message.

The problem is, it’s a bald lie. These commercials establish a disturbing and potentially disastrous precedent by prevaricating to kids about the dangers of drugs. For better or worse, smoking pot with friends has become a rite of passage for many young Americans, especially those enrolled in institutions of higher learning, and it has been for several decades now. When today’s kids find out (as they inevitably will) that marijuana is nowhere near the sinister force demonized in anti-drug propaganda, who’s to say they won’t then wonder if genuinely destructive drugs like cocaine and speed aren’t as dangerous as advertised, either? There are plenty of legitimate messages society should be sending children, but all it takes is one transparent lie to lose credibility permanently. Kids are smarter than that.

Pot smoking is essentially America’s dirty little open secret. Nearly everyone who isn’t Ned Flanders does it at some point, but it’s been so thoroughly stigmatized, villainized, and criminalized by reactionary entities like the Partnership for a Drug-Free America that we as a society are more or less obligated to pretend that it’s something far worse than it is. Far from steering kids away from pot, these ads only add to its outlaw allure by insisting that it’s dirty and wrong and—most horrifying of all to horny, confused teenagers—could very well lead to sex. All it takes is a trip to the Netherlands (incidentally, an increasingly popular rite of passage for young Americans) to see that a culture won’t disintegrate completely if pot is treated as something other than a felonious moral failing. If we came clean about the actual danger posed by pot, maybe we could start dealing with it in a more reasonable and responsible manner.

Reefer Madness is still sort of funny in an unintentional way. But given the current climate surrounding pot, don’t be surprised if the laughs stick in your throat a little. Today’s tactics and techniques might be more sophisticated, but the anti-pot brigade is still peddling the same old lies with a straight face. And that, ultimately, isn’t very funny at all.