background and analysis by Scott Miller

Many Americans believe that during the Vietnam War, the American government perpetrated a gigantic, far-reaching fraud on the American people, lying to us about what America was doing in Vietnam and Cambodia, lying about our lack of success, lying about casualties, lying about the reasons for the war. Many people believe the U.S. government and its lies actually caused the establishment of a major anti-government counter-culture in America, just as Prohibition had done decades before. And though Vietnam was many years ago, an increasing number of Americans today believe George W. Bush’s war in Iraq may turn out to be exactly the same situation, although many pundits will be quick to point out major differences.

But Vietnam wasn’t the first time the government consciously and willfully deceived the American people. In the 1930s, Harry J. Anslinger, America’s first "drug czar," perpetrated one of the most enormous, most egregious deceptions imaginable, and its results and its lies are still with us today. Many people today believe that marijuana is a dangerous, addictive drug, only because back in 1936, Anslinger began one of the world’s greatest public relations campaigns to demonize a plant that is actually less harmful to humans than alcohol or tobacco according to all research. And despite decades of legitimate scientific proof to the contrary, most people still believe the lies Anslinger created seventy years ago. 1936 was also the year one of America’s most infamous films was produced, Reefer Madness, aka Doped Youth, aka Tell Your Children.

Reefer Madness the movie began its bizarre life as a seriously intended "scare film," a badly made, badly written, badly acted melodrama so idiotic in its tone and content that it was rediscovered by the drug culture in the sixties and became one of America’s biggest cult comedy films. The authors of Reefer Madness the musical describe the film this way: "In the black-and-white world of [Reefer Madness], one puff instantly transformed the smoker into a horny, cackling weed freak, twitching insanely with the spastic abandon of Crispin Glover on a pancake griddle." But Reefer Madness wasn’t the only film in this odd film genre. There were also She Shoulda Said No, The Marijuana Menace, Assassin of Youth, Marijuana: The Devil’s Weed and lots more equally as subtle.

But all these films missed one important fact. Study after study – most commissioned by the government – has proven that marijuana is not addictive, that it is less dangerous than alcohol or tobacco, and that it is not a "gateway drug" leading to other drug use. Some of these studies concluded that the laws against marijuana are more dangerous and more the cause of violence and crime than the drug itself. Of course, many of these studies were silenced or destroyed by the very people who commissioned them because of their conclusions (most notably, Anslinger and Richard Nixon). As rational, responsible citizens, we have to ask some questions about America’s ubiquitous War on Drugs: Do we really know that the "drug problem" in America is a "crisis"? Do we know that marijuana is part of that problem? Who is telling us this and can we trust them? Have they lied about drugs before? Is this just like Prohibition, and weren’t lots of people needlessly killed when alcohol was criminalized and went underground way back then?

Did we not learn our lesson in the 1920s about criminalizing pleasure in the United States? And most importantly, should the American government really be waging "war" on its own citizens?

Reefer Madness the Musical

Reefer Madness the musical, created by Dan Studney and Kevin Murphy, is an odd piece of theatre. It is a baldly and gleefully wrought piece of anti-anti-drug propaganda, comically proving the opposite of all received wisdom on the subject. By exposing the long accepted propaganda of Anslinger and others, and by holding its ridiculous absurdity up to the glaring light of reason, the show reveals the truth behind the lies. Reefer Madness the musical never actually tells the truth about marijuana, but it makes the lies so obvious, so blatant, so funny, that they fall like a house of cards. The show exposes the fear, racism, and intellectual laziness which has for decades allowed these lies to live on. And it does all this with such a wicked sense of humor and an almost perverse fearlessness that audiences can’t help but have a great time while their myths get exploded. The sad part is that all the crazy lies revealed in the show come from the real world. As the show’s authors wrote in their cast album liner notes, "The story is a complete fiction. The mindset behind it is true." Anslinger really testified before Congress that one puff of marijuana could cause insanity, sexual deviancy, and murderous rage (all dramatized in the show), among other things. Today, a significant percentage of Americans smoke marijuana – more than 70 million by most statistics – yet no violent crime has ever been linked to marijuana. Alcohol, yes, but never marijuana. Not a single case in the last century of American law enforcement. And the most depressing part is that the hysteria that persists over marijuana distracts us from dealing intelligently and effectively with the drugs that really are dangerous or deadly.

Reefer Madness makes clear a great tragedy in America right now. Though it is true that many Americans are genuinely addicted to dangerous drugs, America as a society and as a government continues to react to this problem so hysterically and so irrationally that real solutions are impossible. And that’s what the show is about – not marijuana itself but the circus-like atmosphere that surrounds it. The title Reefer Madness doesn’t just refer to the "madness" that the myths say comes from smoking pot, but also the "madness" in mainstream America which swirls around the drug problem, making it impossible to solve or even discuss rationally. Throughout the twentieth century and now into the twenty-first, drugs laws have been made and used to control minority populations more so than to solve any perceived drug problem. Originally, the first anti-marijuana laws in America were quite openly designed to rid America of the "problem" of Mexican workers who had immigrated to the U.S. Later the target was black jazz musicians (or, as Anslinger called them, "ginger-colored niggers"), then hippies, then alternative artists and the rock music community, now the hip-hop culture. America’s jails are clogged with non-violent drug offenders and the drug problem in America is far worse now than it was a hundred years ago. America’s War on Drugs has failed, mainly because the people running that War don’t understand what or why they’re fighting.

America really does suffer from Reefer Madness.

The other interesting aspect of Reefer Madness is that, like Bat Boy, Urinetown, and other shows, Reefer Madness asks some pertinent questions about musical theatre as an art form. After sixty years of the Rodgers and Hammerstein model, Reefer questions some of its precepts. The ending of the show certainly asks whether or not you can violate the audience’s structural expectations. Can a show subvert the usual emotional payoff at the end of a show without alienating its audience? And like other shows, it also makes painfully obvious the economic need in the theatre today for actors to play more than one character each, and like other recent shows, it actually mines some humor from that idea.

The Seeds of Reefer Madness

When Reefer Madness the musical premiered in Los Angeles in April 1999, it was in the midst of a revolution in American musical theatre. Bat Boy had already run in Los Angeles and would soon open in off Broadway. Urinetown was in development. And South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut was hitting movie screens. Musicals were becoming intensely self-aware and self-referential. These shows asked questions about what we expect from musicals, whether or not "issue musicals" are satisfying as entertainment, why certain stories or topics should or shouldn’t be musicalized, whether or not ultra-serious musicals (Passion, Assassins, Floyd Collins, Parade, and others) are "too" serious. And each of these new shows still succeeded as a "serious" musical because ultimately they each addressed a very serious issue. Linda Winer of Newsday called Urinetown "elevated silliness of the highest order that makes a gratifying case for the restorative return to knowing foolishness and the smartly absurd." About Bat Boy, The New York Times said, "It's remarkable what intelligent wit can accomplish... the show is a jaggedly imaginative mix of skewering humor and energetic glee." Backstage said, "Rarely do we see a piece of theatre that is at once so smart, silly, self-aware, and easy to enjoy as Bat Boy the Musical." Reefer Madness continued this new trend as its authors created a musical about a subject no one ever thought should be a musical. And in some ways, it was also a musical about musicals.

But Reefer Madness has other roots as well. Not only does it slyly reference other shows like Little Shop of Horrors, Bat Boy, Sweeney Todd, and others, it found its greatest inspiration in the same place as Urinetown – Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. Murphy and Studney cleverly mined – and then transmogrified – Brecht’s theories of theatre, the idea that the audience should never "lose" itself in the story, never get swept away emotionally, but instead should always stay fully aware and analytical. To do this, Threepenny, Sweeney, Urinetown, and Reefer Madness used narrators, direct address to the audience, a chorus that both inhabits the world of the story but also stands outside it as commentators. In Reefer Madness, the "Lecturer," narrates and analyzes the story, both giving us plot information and also offering philosophical and moral pronouncements on the meaning of the events unfolding before us. Reefer Madness commits to this device so fully that the show doesn’t even start with the usual Opening Number. Instead, it opens with a lengthy monologue by the narrator, welcoming the audience to this "parents meeting," offering some background on the story to come, and establishing not only the themes of the show, but also its unusual style. He even insists that this is a "true story," even though we know it’s not; and this little detail underlines the whole show – the whole story is a lie. But it’s a bigger lie than other theatre, bigger because it’s labeled as truth. The seemingly trivial and comic claim that the story is true goes to the heart of Reefer Madness’ satire. The show is about America’s hysteria over drugs brought about by lies dressed up as truth, and here is a show that reveals that lie by making it so blatant. And to make the point – and the target – even more clear, we are told that the creation of the show-within-a-show is inspired by a letter from Anslinger.

There are also parallels to found in the musical to the classic novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, to the story of the Garden of Eden, and to the Faust legend.

Chronic Issues in Reefer Madness

Reefer Madness focuses on America’s hysteria over marijuana but it also shines a light on the other social issues of the day, if only in passing. There are two list songs in the show which give an unusually thorough snapshot of what was going on in America in 1936, which we can’t forget was in the middle of the Great Depression. The show’s title song, "Reefer Madness," lists a string of "evils" to which the marijuana "menace" is compared, including communists, socialists, sin, democrats, and labor unions. In the patriotic finale, "The Truth," more evils are identified which threaten America, including Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, and sex in the movies. The heroes who will save America, according to the song, are Franklin Roosevelt and William Randolph Hearst. All of these were lightning rod issues at the time.

These "evils" were certainly present in American life, but in retrospect we see how little "threat" they really were. It’s true that during the early 1930s, thousands of Americans were joining the communist party, and it’s not hard to see why. One day everything was fine, everybody loved democracy, and all was right with the world. The next day, the stock market crashed, people lost their life’s savings, and unemployment skyrocketed from less than half a million to about four million in two months, eventually reaching a whopping sixteen million within a few years. So many people lost everything they had – money, businesses, families. The suicide rate leapt. Many people stopped believing in democracy. It had failed them. The promises of communism – the redistribution of wealth, expansive rights for workers – were very seductive. Some historians believe that if it hadn’t been for Roosevelt’s New Deal programs (like the Federal Theatre Project), the American communist party would have grown even stronger than it did. Many famous artists, actors, directors, writers, composers, and poets were members of the party and began to create aggressively leftist art. Years later, many actors and directors would be called by Senator Joseph McCarthy before the House Un-American Activities Committee and because they refused to cooperate by naming names, they would be blacklisted in Hollywood for many years. It was in this atmosphere, in which democracy was suffering a severe PR problem, Harry J. Anslinger preyed upon America’s fears by creating the ultimate scapegoat. Suddenly, all the nation’s problems were the results of reefer!

The political atmosphere in America in 1936 was tense. In 1936 there was no hint of unionism at U.S. Steel, but by February 1937, the steel workers had unionized and U.S. Steel had signed a collective bargaining agreement. In response to this new movement, anti-labor organizations were springing up all over America, with patriotic names that hid their real agendas, names like the Liberty League, the Citizen’s Alliances, and others in the same vein. Labor strikes were becoming an everyday occurrence in America, many of them violent and bloody. In a confrontation over a strike at Standard Oil, nineteen men, women, and children were murdered by company guards. The thirties were a decade of incomparable battles between the new unions and company owners. In 1932, the California pea pickers, the airline pilots, the auto workers, and the coal workers all organized into unions. In 1933, California farm workers, New Mexican miners, and workers at Detroit Tool and Die and Hormel Meat Packing Company organized. In 1934, textile workers, farm workers, rubber workers, and longshoremen organized. In 1935 and 1936, it was metal workers in the Midwest, lumberjacks in the pacific northwest, southern sharecroppers and farm workers, and seamen; as well as the first sit down strikes at Bendix, General Motors, and Firestone Rubber. The Detroit News declared that sit-down strikes had replaced baseball as the national pastime. In 1934, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Roosevelt’s National Industrial Recovery Act was unconstitutional, taking away from American workers the right they had been given to organize and bargain collectively. But Congress passed the new National Labor Relations Act to recreate the right to collective bargaining.

The reference to Charles Darwin in the song "The Truth" refers to the ongoing debate in the 1920s and 1930s over whether or not to teach Darwin’s theories of evolution. Tennessee had a law on the books making it illegal to teach evolution, but a high school teacher named Scopes did it anyway, was arrested, and tried in the internationally famous Scopes "Monkey" trial. Two of America’s greatest lawyers argued the case, Clarence Darrow for the defense and William Jennings Bryant for the prosecution. Scopes was convicted, the case was appealed to the state supreme court, and it was overturned on a technicality. But the furor wasn’t over. The debate continued, with many religious extremists demanding that only the creation story in the Bible be taught to students. By the 1930s, when Reefer Madness is set, the story of the Scopes trial had become mythologized and distorted. Because most average people didn’t understand the complexity of Darwin’s theories, they rejected them and shored up their belief in the Genesis story. In the years following the Scopes trial, textbook publishers began removing references to evolution for fear of offending their customers, and more than thirty anti-evolution bills were proposed in twenty states. By the 1930s, the more religious and less educated areas of the country had passed various forms of local restriction on teaching evolution, in some cases through school principals, some through school board resolutions. Almost all the South and some of the West were affected. No Southern anti-evolution legislation was repealed for forty years. Interestingly, the debate continues today. In 1999, the Kansas State Board of Education voted to make the teaching of evolution in Kansas schools optional. They also voted to remove evolution from all state achievement tests. They also voted to remove study of the origin of the universe. Meanwhile, school boards in other states including Arizona, Alabama, Illinois, New Mexico, Texas and Nebraska, have made similar attempts in recent years.

Yes, we’re still suffering from Reefer Madness in America.

Sigmund Freud is also mentioned as an "evil" in the song "The Truth." Certainly, psychoanalysis was starting to become popular in the thirties, and would become even more so in the forties. But Freud often attacked long-held, deeply cherished beliefs. In 1927, Freud wrote The Future of an Illusion, in which he attacked organized religion as a collective neurosis. He believed that religion had performed a great service for civilization by taming asocial instincts and creating a sense of community around a shared set of beliefs, but he argued that it had also exacted an enormous psychological cost to the individual by making him perpetually subordinate to God, the "enormously exalted father." In The Future of an Illusion, Freud bemoaned the idea of placating a supposedly higher being for future recompense, which he found utterly infantile and absurd. According to Freud, men exhibit three main coping mechanisms to counter their experience of suffering in the world: the deflection of pain and disappointment (through planned distractions); substitute satisfactions (replacing reality with art); and the use of intoxicating substances. It only made his blasphemies worse because he was a very open, avowed atheist. In 1929, he wrote Civilization and Its Discontents to further explore the relation between psychoanalysis and religion, as well as between the individual and civilization, focusing on the devastation of the World War I. To many, Freud was a very dangerous enemy of our "Christian nation."

The reference in "The Truth" to sex in the movies was another hot button issue of the times. Public outcry over perceived immorality, both in the lives of Hollywood stars and on the screen, led to the creation in 1922 of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (which later became the Motion Picture Association of America). Intended to project a positive image of the movie industry, the association was headed by Will Hays, who had previously been the campaign manager for President Warren G. Harding. Hays pledged to impose a set of moral standards on the movies. Hays spent eight years attempting to enforce a moral authority over Hollywood films, with little effect. The Hays office did issue a list of "Don’ts" and "Be Carefuls" in 1927, but film-makers continued to do pretty much what they wanted. With the advent of talking pictures, it was felt that a more formal written code was needed. The Production Code was written, and adopted on March 31, 1930. Strangely enough, after the code was adopted, the movies got racier and more violent than they had been. It was the time of the Great Depression, and some film-makers wanted desperately to make films that made money – and what made money was sex and violence. There was no formal structure for enforcing the Production Code.

The Motion Picture Association of America responded to criticism of the racy and violent films of the early 1930s by strengthening the code. An amendment to the code required all films to obtain a certificate of approval before being released. Joseph Breen was appointed head of the new Production Code Administration. Under Breen’s leadership, enforcement of the Production Code became rigid and notorious. Breen’s conservative views angered some of the Hollywood moguls. But many in middle America were delighted by this new conservatism in Hollywood.

One of Reefer Madness’ heroes is Franklin D. Roosevelt, the ultimate symbol of hope when he was elected president in 1932. Assuming the Presidency at the depth of the Great Depression, Roosevelt helped the American people regain faith in themselves. He promised prompt, vigorous action, and asserted in his inaugural address, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." He was elected in 1932 to the first of four terms. By March 1933 there were thirteen million unemployed, and almost every bank was closed. In his first hundred days, he proposed, and Congress enacted, a sweeping program to bring recovery to business and agriculture, relief to the unemployed and to those in danger of losing farms and homes, and reform, especially through the establishment of the Tennessee Valley Authority. By 1935 the Nation had achieved some measure of recovery, but businessmen and bankers were turning more and more against Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. They feared his experiments, were appalled because he had allowed deficits in the budget, and they disliked the concessions to labor. Roosevelt responded with a new program of reform: Social Security, heavier taxes on the wealthy, new controls over banks and public utilities, and an enormous work relief program for the unemployed. In 1936 he was re-elected by a top-heavy margin. To the people of America who had suffered through the Depression, he was a true hero.

In Reefer Madness, William Randolph Hearst is held up as a hero, alongside Roosevelt, but in reality, he was a freakishly powerful publisher magnate, who brought sensationalist, "yellow journalism" to much of America. At his peak he owned twenty-eight major newspapers and eighteen magazines, along with several radio stations and movie companies. Hearst was famous for using his many publications to support those he agreed with and to destroy those with whom he disagreed. Hearst was the real life model for Orson Welles’ megalomaniac Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane, and it made Welles and Hearst lifelong enemies. Ridding America of the marijuana menace was one of Hearst’s pet causes and he used his papers to print wild lies and melodramatic (and untrue) crime stories about the murderous ends to which reefer can bring otherwise upstanding citizens. Interestingly, though he was one of the most rabid anti-Communists in the 1940s, earlier in the 1930s, he was very publicly pro-Nazi before America got into World War II. But he shaped America’s opinions like very few others in American history.

Scoring Some Reefer

The score to Reefer Madness, though it will no doubt always over-shadowed by the outrageousness of the script, is very well built. Though the show is basically a rock musical, Studney also appropriates other musical styles, including swing, disco, fake "Eastern," and gospel. One of the most interesting things Studney and Murphy do is the way they use reprises. There are several reprises in the show, and they’re all used in surprising, dramatic ways. The title song opens the show as a warning to concerned parents at this "meeting," as a kind of dark hopefulness that the "enemy" will be conquered. And it ends the show with a different message, more dismal, more apocalyptic. The show’s only love song (if it can be called that) is "Romeo and Juliet," which first shows up as an introduction to the young lovers Jimmy and Mary, and a glimpse of their very shallow but sincere love for each other. When it’s reprised, it signals the destruction of that love. "The Stuff" is initially used to give us insight into the way Mae is hopelessly trapped and addicted, shackled to the villainous Jack ("pure evil in a fedora," the script calls him) by her addiction. When "The Stuff" gets reprised, it dramatizes Mae’s escape from her shackles. "Down at the Ol’ Five-and-Dime" is first used to introduce us to the innocence and perceived safety of the soda shop, but when the song returns in Act II, it’s to reveal the dark secret behind that soda shop. "Listen to Jesus, Jimmy" appears first as Jesus’ attempt to rescue Jimmy from his sin, but when we hear it the second time, its intentions are polar opposite. As Jesus says before the reprise, "Actually, Jimmy, I just came here to gloat." There is no salvation this time. Jimmy only got one chance and he blew it. These songs and their reprises bookend major plot lines, marking both the beginning and ending of Jimmy’s story, Mae’s story, the story of the "townspeople" (in this case, the local kids), and the story of Jimmy’s possible redemption and salvation.

The use of Romeo and Juliet as a thematic device is both classic and comic. When Jimmy and Mary first sing "Romeo and Juliet," they don’t know how Romeo and Juliet’s great tragic romance ended; they haven’t read the end of the play yet. And because they assume Romeo and Juliet must get their happy ending, Jimmy and Mary continually compare themselves to their tragic counterparts. Of the irony, is that Jimmy and Mary will end up like Romeo and Juliet. They just don’t know it yet. Like Romeo and Juliet, Jimmy and Mary are torn apart by outside social forces that have nothing directly to do with their relationship. And there’s an argument to be made that Reefer Madness is Shakespearean in other ways as well. Certainly, one of Shakespeare’s favorite plot device was sending upstanding citizens off into the woods, into a world without rules, inhibitions, or social norms, so that they could find their primal selves, learn something about themselves, and return to civilization changed. Reefer Madness parallels this with Jimmy’s journey into the world of the reefer den. He goes into a metaphorical woods as he enters the alternate universe that the deadly reefer creates in his mind. He has group sex, he murders, and he abandons all morality. He becomes only desire and appetite. He becomes the savage Caliban. What’s most fun – and creepy – about the sexual side of Reefer Madness is that the show’s premise sets up the Lecturer as the author and director of this "scare musical," yet he has staged (with high school students, we’re supposed to believe) a full-blown onstage orgy in Act I. And then in Act II, he declares that gay sex in prison is too depraved to depict on a public stage, even though we’ve already seen his orgy. It’s the kind of hypocrisy that has clouded these issues for more than a century. Yet when the show ends, Jimmy cannot return to civilization, even though he has made a conversion and understands the "error" of his ways, all because with reefer, "there can be no mercy, no redemption, and no happy ending."

Of course, that tragic ending reinforces Jimmy’s role as a kind of perverse Christ figure. There are parallels between Reefer Madness and the Genesis story, with Jack as the serpent, Mae as Eve (more so than Mary, really), Jimmy as Adam, and reefers as The Apple from the Tree of Knowledge. Interestingly, Jack doesn’t do drugs himself (one supposes it would be bad for business), but he does drink. And of course, the score contains so many religious references, underlining the religious extremism that was still gripping America and helping to fuel both Prohibition and the War on Drugs. In addition to "Listen to Jimmy, Jesus," with its many irreverent Biblical puns, the show’s title song also trades in religious imagery, with phrases like "burrows like a weevil under tender Christian skin," "righteous soldiers," "kill the devil," and "god may strike you dead." And the title song also traffics in images of sexual sins, probably invoking for some audiences the great sexual sins of the Bible, with phrases like "hooligans and whores," "savagely deflowering the good ol’ USA," "it’s seductive," "teenagers across the land are glazed and over-sexed," and "you’ll become a one-armed headless reefer slut."

Of course, the show is set in 1936, right in the middle of the Great Depression, and the tremendous despair and desperation across America during that time brought with it a rise in fire-and-brimstone Christian fundamentalism, a shoving aside of the New Testament’s loving God in favor of an Old Testament vengeful and angry God. Though some audiences may find the portrayal of Jesus in Reefer Madness to be offensive, the character isn’t really Jesus; he’s Jimmy’s hallucination of Jesus. And since Jimmy has no doubt been exposed to the fierce fundamentalism (and moral conformity) of the times, it’s no surprise that he hallucinates Jesus returning in Act II to judge him mercilessly.

The Real Dope on Pot

So what exactly is marijuana? How does it affect the user? Most of the marijuana used today comes from the leaves and flowers of the Indian hemp plant, cannabis sativa, though there are other varieties. It’s usually dried and crushed and smoked in pipes or cigarettes. Marijuana can also be added to food – like brownies – or beverages for a similar though slightly different affect since it takes the drug longer to get to the brain. Marijuana varies in potency, depending on where and how it is grown, prepared, and stored. The active ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), is present in all parts of both the male and female plants but is most concentrated in the resin (cannabin) in the flowering tops of the female. When marijuana is smoked, the blood supply of the lungs absorb the THC. The THC then moves to the heart through the blood where it increases the heart rate. When it gets to the brain, marijuana acts on specific cannabinoid receptors. In the late 1980s researchers discovered a receptor for THC and THC-related chemicals in the brains of certain mammals, including humans. The brain naturally produces a THC-like substance that may perform some of the same functions that THC does. Such a substance subsequently was found and named anandamide, from ananda the Sanskrit word for bliss.

Psychological effects include mild euphoria, as well as changes in visual perception and perceived distortions of time and space. Physical effects include reddening of the eyes, dryness of the mouth and throat, moderate increase in the rapidity of the heartbeat, tightness of the chest (if the drug is smoked), drowsiness, unsteadiness, and lack of muscular coordination. Chronic use does not establish physical dependence, nor, upon withdrawal, does the regular user suffer any significant physical discomfort (like that associated with narcotics). Since THC remains in the body, it has been found to have residual effects on cognitive functions (including memory) up to forty-eight hours after smoking. However, there is no evidence that these effects last longer than two days.

Interestingly, the real effects of marijuana are exactly opposite those claimed by opponents of the drug. Those who have fought legalization of marijuana over the years swear it causes aggression, when in reality it causes mellow passivity in most users. The 1975 edition of The New Columbia Encyclopedia said about the drug, "Much of the prevailing public apprehension about marijuana may stem from the drug’s effect of inducing introspection and bodily passivity, which are antipathetic to a culture that values aggressiveness, achievement, and activity."

One of the most fun aspects of Reefer Madness the musical is that it gleefully invokes dozens of nicknames and code words for marijuana throughout the script, including bambalacha, brick, butter, dope, giggle stick, Jamaican Gold, Jay, joint, Mary Wanna, Mary Wonder, mooter, muggles, reefer, sinsemilla, tea stick, weed, and zombie.

A Very Blunt History of Marijuana

Many of the most popular drugs that became known to the mainstream in the 1930s had long, legitimate histories. People have been smoking marijuana and hashish, both products of the cannabis plant, all over the world for thousands of years. Some anthropologists believe cannabis was the first crop humans cultivated. Cannabis, the plant that produces marijuana, is a weed that grows everywhere on Earth except the Arctic Circle. Evidence of the cultivation of marijuana reaches back as far as 2737 B.C. China, where it was used as a treatment for rheumatism, malaria, and absent-mindedness, among other things. In 2300 B.C., the Chinese emperor and physician Shen Nung first recorded the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes. It was used recreationally as far back as 1000 B.C. in India and Persia. The Indians believed that Shiva, the Goddess of Creation, gave cannabis to humans. Arab traders brought it to Africa and Spain. Around 600 B.C., Taoist priests in China used it in incense to stimulate mystical visions. Both Hindus and Buddhists began to use the drug in their daily rituals. What we now know as Tantric sex was originally fueled by marijuana. The Arab world also embraced marijuana use in certain circles, but around 1250, the Arabs launched the world’s first War on Drugs, and the punishment for marijuana possession was either dismemberment or death. The word hashish comes from the Arabic word for herbs or herbage. And the English word assassins comes from a radical, ultra-violent Arabian sect which were hashish eaters (hashīshī).

In Western Europe, cannabis had been used for hundreds of years as a folk remedy for many ailments. But in the late 1400s, Pope Innocent VIII discovered that it was being used in witchcraft rituals and he outlawed it. Those who opposed the Catholic Church began to create their own religious rituals, and marijuana replaced wine in their rituals. The Spanish brought cannabis to the Americas in 1545. Around 1563, Portuguese physician Garcia Da Orta wrote about marijuana’s medicinal uses. Napoleon and his troops brought recreational cannabis to Western Europe from Egypt. They preferred it to alcohol because it caused no hangover. Later on, in Paris, the Bohemians took to it immediately and began creating art under the influence of marijuana.

English doctors working in colonial India rediscovered marijuana and brought it back to England. It began to be used again as medicine, to treat various ailments. Rich women ate marijuana laced candies to relax. Queen Victoria used it for menstrual cramps. It became a big enough part of English life that later, in Lewis Carroll’s book Alice in Wonderland, Carroll depicted a talking caterpillar smoking either pot or hashish through a hookah (a bong with a hose to smoke through). The English brought it across the Atlantic and arrived with pot in Jamestown in 1611, where it became a major commercial crop, eventually replaced in the American south by cotton. Marijuana was a principal crop at George Washington’s Mount Vernon and a secondary crop at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. They grew it primarily for use as hemp rope and hemp canvas (the word canvas comes from the Latin word cannabis), but there is some evidence that they used it for its hallucinogenic properties as well.

By 1851, the doctor’s drug reference book, The United States Pharmacopaeia, listed marijuana as a drug that could be used to treat low sex drive, low appetite, insomnia, physical spasms and other nervous system problems, various kinds of severe pain, uterine hemorrhaging nausea, neuralgia, gout, rheumatism, tetanus, hydrophobia, cholera, convulsions, hysteria, clinical depression, and insanity. And reputable physicians were actually using the drug for all these problems with great success. The most interesting detail is that though later, anti-drug activists would claim marijuana causes insanity, here in 1851 it was used to treat insanity. People weren’t yet smoking it in America; but they were taking completely unregulated "patent medicines" that contained marijuana. It wasn’t until 1876 that the Sultan of Turkey brought the practice of smoking pot to the United States as a gift for the country’s centennial. The Turkish pavilion at the centennial celebration became a kind of nineteenth century pot party. Soon Turkish "Smoking Parlors" sprang up in the biggest cities on the East Coast. Reefer Madness the musical pays tribute to this trend with its faux-Eastern orgy number in Act I.

Widespread mainstream recreational marijuana use began in the United States at the turn of the last century, courtesy of Mexican immigrants coming across the border to look for work in the American southwest. In fact, the word marijuana comes from the Mexican word marijuango which means intoxicant. The word pot is a shortened version of the Mexican word potiguaya, an alternate word for marijuana. And the word roach, meaning a marijuana cigarette butt, comes from the Mexican folk song, La Cucaracha (The Cockroach), which was quite explicitly about Pancho Villa’s soldiers running out of marijuana while on the march. But white Americans weren’t feeling very welcoming and were looking for excuses for their racist hatred of Mexicans, so rumors began that pot gave these Mexicans superhuman strength and turned them into crazed rapists and murderers. Despite the fact that neither was true, these stereotypes would last for decades.

In 1914, the U.S. Congress passed the Harrison Narcotics Act, regulating the use and sale of narcotics. At the time, consideration was given to including marijuana in the list of affected drugs, but lobbyists representing doctors and marijuana producers kept pot out of the law. Later on, some tried to add marijuana to the already existing Harrison Act, but in 1929, the U.S. Surgeon General said in a letter to the Journal of the American Pharmaceutical Association:

There has been some discussion respecting the desirability of including Indian hemp or marihuana in the present Federal narcotic law. I am inclined to think that such a plan would be difficult of administration and would probably be a factor in nullifying the constitutionality of the existing law.

James Doran, the Commissioner of the Department of Prohibition Enforcement wrote to one federal district judge that he agreed because:

the constitutionality of the Harrison Law may thereby be imperiled since the drug is producible from a plant grown domestically and is not included within the terms of the International Opium Convention of 1912.

Still, starting in 1914, local laws began popping up criminalizing marijuana – often not so much as a way of controlling pot usage as it was a way of controlling Mexicans. One Texas state senator said on the floor of the senate, "All Mexicans are crazy and this stuff [marijuana] is what makes them crazy." One Montana state legislator said, "Give one of those Mexican beet field workers a couple of puffs on a marijuana cigarette and he thinks he is in the bullring at Barcelona." One Colorado newspaper editor wrote:

I wish I could show you what a small marihuana cigaret can do to one of our degenerate Spanish-speaking residents. That’s why our problem is so great; the greatest percentage of our population is composed of Spanish-speaking persons, most of whom are low mentally, because of social and racial conditions.

From 1914 to 1937, twenty-seven states passed anti-marijuana laws. As states continued to pass these laws, racist lawmakers who were trying to get rid of certain ethnic groups (sometimes Mexicans, sometimes blacks) began to campaign for the death penalty for marijuana use.

The Fearless Buzz Killers

Throughout the "jazz age" of 1920s America, pot use increased among jazz musicians and people in show business. Marijuana clubs, called "tea pads," began springing up in many major American cities. In 1920, the U.S. Department of Agriculture urged American farmers to grow marijuana as a profitable crop, mostly for hemp. And as Prohibition took hold, many Americans turned from liquor to pot. Marijuana was still legal in most places, but soon it was lumped together in the minds of the public with serious drugs like heroin and opium and it was placed under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Treasury Department, which in turn created the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (so named even though most of the drugs under its jurisdiction were not narcotics), and named Harry J. Anslinger as its head. Not coincidentally, Anslinger was married to the niece of Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon. Before Anslinger, law enforcement had focused on heroin and cocaine, but now the focus would be almost exclusively on cannabis. The War on Marijuana had begun.

And yet, marijuana use continued to spread throughout the country. Sailors from the West Indies brought it into Los Angeles. Jazz musicians – who began to call themselves vipers – from New Orleans brought it up the Mississippi into the Midwest. Most jazzmen believed marijuana inspired far better music than alcohol ever had. Horn player Milton "Mezz" Mezzrow wrote:

The lushies [those who drank alcohol] didn’t even play good music – their tones became hard and evil, not natural, soft and soulful – and anything that messed up the music instead of sending it on its way was out with us. We members of the viper school were for making music that was real foxy, all lit up with inspiration and her mammy. The juice guzzlers went sour fast on their instruments, then turned grimy because it preyed on their minds.

Some claimed marijuana was as important to the early development of jazz as LSD was to acid rock in the sixties. But it was still used only in small, specific social groups – sailors, jazz musicians, circus people and other entertainers, gangsters, the last of the cowboys, and certain minorities – but the majority of the public had no contact with it or knowledge of it. Surprisingly, even Anslinger himself wrote in 1931, "The publicity tends to magnify the extent of the evil and lends color to an inference that there is an alarming spread of the improper use of the drug, whereas the actual increase in such use may not have been inordinately large." Of course, he’d reverse his opinion in the coming years. In 1935, psychiatrist Walter Bromberg reported that

It is more than probable that alcohol is at least as responsible for crime as is marihuana. It is inaccurate to assign such a role to the drug when the basic antisocial nature of the persons who use it is understood. From the material quoted and the experience with users, it is clear that marihuana cannot be considered a primary cause of crime.

Among those few groups of marijuana users, they held pot parties in their apartments. When someone was low on money, they’d have a "tea party" and their friends would show up, buy some reefer and stay to enjoy it. Soon in Harlem, these parties became the famous "rent parties" to raise money to pay the rent.

In 1936, Hollywood produced the now comic but then seriously intended "scare film," Reefer Madness, which perpetuated the myth that pot drove users insane and turned them into crazed killers. With the success of this and other films, including Assassin of Youth (the title taken from an article by Anslinger himself), Anslinger launched one of the greatest PR campaigns in American history, inserting his anti-pot propaganda into magazine articles, newspapers, speeches, films, and radio broadcasts.

In 1937 President Franklin Roosevelt signed a marijuana tax which required a government stamp in order to sell or distribute pot. The catch was the government refused to issue any stamps, effectively outlawing pot without actually passing a criminal law. The U.S. Congress, known for its usual months and months of hearings on a single issue, spent just two hours of hearings on the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. The primary witness was Anslinger, who said, "Marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death." When asked if marijuana leads to the use of other more dangerous drugs, Anslinger truthfully answered that no, there is no connection. He would later reverse that position.

Anslinger related many cases of gruesome murders and rapes, and claimed – with no evidence at all – that all the perpetrators had been using marijuana. Of course, even if that were true, still no one had found any connection between marijuana use and violence of any kind. In the following years, based on Ansligner’s testimony, five high profile murder cases invoked marijuana use in their pleas of insanity, to great success.

Dr. William Woodward, of the American Medical Association also testified before Congress, saying, "The American Medical Association knows of no evidence that marijuana is a dangerous drug," to which one hapless congressman replied, "Doctor, if you can’t say something good about what we are trying to do, why don’t you go home?" The next congressman said, "Doctor, if you haven’t got something better to say than that, we are sick of hearing you." The hemp industry also objected to the proposed law because, aside from marijuana, the plants also produced fiber for rope, birdseed, and oil for the varnish industry, all of which were about to become illegal. After the hearings, the U.S. House of Representatives spent exactly a minute and thirty-two seconds in debate before voting to pass the law. When Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn was asked what they were voting on, he famously replied, "I don’t know. It has something to do with a thing called marijuana." The bill passed by a landslide despite the rampant ignorance on the part of those voting. The Senate did not debate it before passing the act. Oddly enough, they provided no additional funding to any agencies to enforce this new law, which meant that enforcement would be sporadic and arbitrary. So the government undertook a campaign of selective arrests throughout the country.

That same year, New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia commissioned one of the first scientific studies of marijuana. After six years of studying the drug, the results proved that pot did not cause increased sexual drive, violence, or insanity. Anslinger was furious and destroyed every copy of the report he could get his hands on, while LaGuardia publicly came out for legalizing marijuana. Anslinger further made sure no more pot could be (legally) acquired for any other studies. Meanwhile, evangelists were crisscrossing America preaching that Jesus would have never smoked reefer (an idea satirized in Reefer Madness the musical). One of those preachers, Earle Albert Rowell (quoted in the musical), drove Anslinger crazy because his preaching didn’t fit in with Ansligner’s very carefully crafted public messages. Rowell believed addicts were sick and needed treatment while Anslinger pushed for the death penalty. Rowell believed that marijuana was not a gateway drug to heroin, but instead that nicotine was the gateway drug to marijuana. Rowell’s ideas were too complex and too unconventional for Anslinger, so Anslinger launched a massive smear campaign against Rowell and put him out of the preaching business permanently.

Anslinger also shifted his focus from ordinary Americans to movie stars, to up the publicity for his anti-pot campaign. Actor Robert Mitchum, drummer Gene Krupa, and many other celebrities were arrested and their arrests highly publicized. In response, the major Hollywood studios handed control of their films over to Anslinger, who banned any positive messages about pot in any films.

From 1937, when Ansligner’s official War on Marijuana began, through 1947, the government spent a whopping $270 million fighting marijuana, a drug proven scientifically to be virtually harmless. (It’s true that the smoke is as unhealthy as that of tobacco, but pot users smoke far less than tobacco users do – half a joint usually does the trick – so the effects are far less harmful.) In 1944, the New York Academy of Medicine released a longterm study which proved marijuana was not harmful or addictive, and was not a "gateway drug" that led to heroin or cocaine. Anslinger was furious. In 1948 Anslinger went to Congress for money for more drug enforcement agents. When senators asked him who was violating marijuana laws, he replied (and this is a quote), "Musicians. And I don’t mean good musicians, I mean jazz musicians." Of course, his statement made all the papers and within three days, the Treasury Department received fifteen thousand letters of protest. In 1951, New York state senator Everett Dirksen proposed the death penalty for anyone caught with marijuana. A colleague thought that was too harsh and suggested instead a prison term of one hundred years. That same year, the United Nations reported that 200 million people worldwide used marijuana, and Newsweek reported that 100,000 Americans used it. During the 40s and 50s, a new genre of fiction appeared, partly due to Ansligner’s campaign, lurid anti-drug pulp fiction, and these books became very popular throughout the country, further cementing the mistaken belief that marijuana was a threat to American life.

Since Anslinger had stopped the availability of pot for scientific studies, it remains a mystery where he got his information when he announced in the early 1950s that marijuana was a direct and inescapable step to heroin addiction. He also declared that Communists were behind the distribution of marijuana in the U.S. in order to make Americans "weak" and easy to conquer. In the Cold War hysteria of the 50s, this campaign was his most successful yet. He convinced President Truman to sign the Boggs Act which substantially increased penalties for marijuana possession. In 1958, following the lead of other states, Virginia passed a new law which required a minimum twenty years in jail for marijuana possession, with no parole. At that same time, Virginia law provided for a minimum fifteen years for murder and ten years for rape. But meanwhile, in 1957 Jack Kerouac’s landmark novel On the Road was published, sparking the modern marijuana movement.

In 1961, Anslinger addressed the United Nations and convinced one hundred countries to sign an international agreement to outlaw marijuana. By 1963, Ansligner’s War on Marijuana had cost an additional $1.5 billion. But as marijuana emerged as a mainstream indulgence in the 1960s, as people found out all the scare tactics were lies, it just fueled the burgeoning belief that the government was lying about everything. Now many Americans knew marijuana was not dangerous, and it called every other governmental declaration into question as well. Later revelations about Vietnam would just cement many Americans’ complete distrust of the government.

The Age of Aquarius

Finally, in 1967, as Hair was opening off Broadway, and as marijuana use in America was increasing and becoming more mainstream, the federal government finally allowed a few studies of the drug to go forward, for the first time since LaGuardia’s study in the thirties. One study estimated that fully one half of the American soldiers in Vietnam were using pot on a regular basis.

Richard Nixon was running for president on a Law and Order platform, but since most law enforcement was handled by individual states, he couldn’t really propose much for the federal government to do. So Nixon decided to focus on a federal "clean up" of the American "drug problem." Interestingly, in 1968 the American tobacco industry had gross sales of $38 billion, heavily subsidized by the U.S. government, and they had spent $250 million on advertising. Once elected, Nixon sent two thousand customs agent to the Mexican border to stop the flow of marijuana into America. His plan was abandoned after three weeks when virtually no pot was found by agents. So instead, Nixon sent more federal money to local law enforcement agencies to stop marijuana on the local level. As more money was spent and laws were changed, some individuals were being sentenced to fifty years in jail for selling less than an ounce of marijuana, even while a study in 1969 reported that eight to twelve million Americans had used pot at least once. From 1964 to 1969, Anslinger and Nixon spent $9 billion dollars on the War on Marijuana, for a grand total of nearly $11 billion thus far. In 1970, Ansligner’s Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was declared unconstitutional, and the U.S. Congress reduced penalties for marijuana possession. That same year Keith Stroup founded the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

As Hair still ran on Broadway, Nixon’s own National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse recommended legalization of marijuana, but when Nixon heard about their conclusions, he refused to read their report. Instead of following his own commission’s recommendation, he created the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to step up the War. In 1971, he declared that drugs were "America’s Public Enemy Number One." But the tide was turning. By 1972, local and state anti-pot laws were beginning to be reversed, and despite opponents’ dire predictions, usage did not increase substantially. President Ford later decided that since most of America’s pot was coming from Mexico and Jamaica, we should spray all those plants with paraquat, a powerful herbicide used in the jungles of Vietnam. Unfortunately, it didn’t kill all the cannabis plants, but it did make the resulting marijuana poisonous, causing breathing difficulty, convulsions, and kidney damage in many users, courtesy of the U.S. government.

In 1975 presidential hopeful Jimmy Carter came out publicly for decriminalization of marijuana. But he reversed his position later and the federal government continued to pour money into its War on Marijuana. During the Regan Years, attitudes about marijuana – and everything else – turned back to the paranoia and innocence (some would say ignorance) of the 1950s. First lady Nancy Regan launched the earnest but arguably nonsensical "Just Say No" campaign, apparently urging American youth to turn off its collective brain rather than make informed decisions. Regan himself increased criminal penalties associated with pot exponentially, now including property seizure, and penalties for possession of rolling papers, bongs, and roach clips, even without actual marijuana. What this did was decrease marijuana traffic and replace it with heroin and cocaine traffic. But meanwhile, in the early 1990s, Midwestern farmers were growing marijuana in record numbers. Since the plant grows in exactly the same conditions as corn, and since marijuana brought in a substantially higher profit, no one was surprised. But the government did their best to stop it.

When all was said and done, the total cost to Americans from 1937 to 1998 amounted to a whopping $301.5 billion. That War on Drugs now costs Americans about $20 billion a year. And it just doesn’t work. The latest statistics say marijuana use among twelfth graders has gone up 62% since 1994. The use of other drugs among the same group has also increased. The truth is that the War on Drugs has not decreased the availability of drugs or the number of people using them, but it has made drugs astronomically profitable, giving drug dealers more incentive today to sell drugs than ever before. Meanwhile, 700,000 Americans are arrested each year for marijuana-related offense, seventy-five percent of those for possession only. The drug lords aren’t being arrested. Average Americans are. And the rest of us are footing the bill – more than $20,000 a year for each drug user in prison, a bill American taxpayers have to pay, and that’s only for marijuana offenders. That doesn’t count all the other illegal drugs. There are more people in jail for marijuana use today than at any other time in recorded history.

Of course the fight has almost always been led by Republicans, the party that believes government should be limited as much as possible, that the government should stay out of Americans’ private lives – except of course when it comes to sex and drugs. In fact, the infamous Republican leader Newt Gingrich proposed in 1997 the Drug Importer Death Penalty Act, even though he had admitted to smoking pot in college. It mandated life in prison without parole for anyone bringing marijuana into the country, even as little as two ounces.

And the result of all that money and effort? If the statistics can be believed, fully one half of our nation’s college students now use marijuana. One million Americans admitted in a recent study that they have used marijuana, twenty million in the past year. And all them are now, by definition, "criminals."

Furthermore, marijuana is being used today for legitimate medical uses, including reducing side effects to AIDS and cancer treatments, and to treat (quite effectively) Tourrette’s syndrome. Today, thirty-five states have legalized medical marijuana, even though the federal government still outlaws it. Interestingly, back in 1979 the U.S. government started a small program of federally supplied medical marijuana to patients in need. At its peak, thirty patients were in the program. In 1992, George Bush Sr. stopped the program, but those who were already on it will continue in the program until they die. If marijuana does all the terrible things the government says it does, why is it distributing it to its citizens?

Other Resources

The original 1936 film Reefer Madness is available on video and DVD, and a new, colorized version has just been released, with interesting commentary and fun extras. The cast album of the Los Angeles production of the show is also available, though some songs were cut and some added later in New York and for the cable movie version. Also, Larry Sloman’s book Reefer Madness (not related to the movie) is an excellent social and political history of marijuana. There’s also a great, beautifully illustrated coffee table book called HighLights that also covers the history of marijuana use over the millennia.


Copyright 2003-2004. Excerpt from Scott Miller's upcoming (untitled) book on musical theatre. Information on marijuana is expanded from excerpts from Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR (Heinemann, 2003) by Scott Miller. All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre, Deconstructing Harold Hill, Rebels with Applause, From Assassins to West Side Story, and Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals.