Arrow-right Camera

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Tuesday, February 25, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Cloudy 36° Cloudy

‘Reefer Madness’ returns to Spokane April 7

Cautionary film now gets lots of laughs

'Reefer Madness' will be shown in Spokane.
'Reefer Madness' will be shown in Spokane.

Irony is a primary component of humor. And that may be especially true of cannabis humor.

Here, for example, is a line from a Time Out magazine review of the film “Reefer Madness”: It is, the reviewer wrote, “One of the most absurdly earnest exercises in paranoia you’ll ever have the good fortune to see.”

How often does anyone consider paranoia something good to experience?

You could argue that “Reefer Madness” is the singular exception. I can remember seeing the film in the mid-1970s and failing to hear half the overly stilted dialogue because everyone sitting around me was laughing so hard.

If you’ve never seen the film, you’ll have an opportunity when it screens on April 7 at the Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox in Spokane. The event is intended both as a means of raising awareness about issues involving current marijuana laws and as a fundraiser for the Washington chapter of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws).

The doors will open at 7 p.m.. Along with the movie, attendees will have the chance to socialize, purchase drinks and NORML merchandise as well as listen to a panel discussion.

“Reefer Madness,” whose origins date to 1936, was intended initially as an anti-marijuana screed. Funded by a church group, film director Louis J. Gasnier was hired to warn the unwary about the dangers of demon weed. Gasnier built his films around a serious-minded, if fictional, scientist who sounds the alarm.

The title of Gasnier’s film? “Tell Your Children.”

Later, though, the film was purchased by exploitation-movie producer Dwain Esper, who added sequences and changed the title depending on where it was released. Sometimes it was called “The Burning Question.” Sometimes “Doped Youth.”

But the enduring title is “Reefer Madness.”

Bookended by scenes of the scientist and his admonitions, the film follows a group of marijuana pushers who take advantage of several high school students. Ultimately, cannabis is blamed for a number of deaths, including a shooting and a suicide, and one person is driven psychotic and sent to an asylum “for the rest of his natural life.”

But the one scene everyone who has seen the film remembers best involves the character played by actor Dave O’Brien, who worked regularly during the 1930s and ’40s. It’s O’Brien as the character Ralph who, lost in mania caused by a cloud of marijuana smoke, urges his girlfriend to play the piano with ever-increasing gusto.

“Play it faster, play it faster!” he says with cartoonishly wide-eyed glee.

“All the performers either overact laughably or underact to the point of just standing in place and speaking lines in a monotone,” wrote a reviewer for TV Guide. “Whether the film ever stopped anyone from smoking marijuana is doubtful, but it certainly turned out to be a greater success than its producers ever dreamed.”

Kevin Oliver, executive director of NORML’s Washington chapter, hopes that those who attend the screening enjoy themselves. But he stresses, too, that the screening has a serious intent, which is “breaking down the wall of prohibition that’s being held by belief in ‘Reefer Madness.’”

In other words, he wants the audience to see the movie for what it originally was intended to be: pure propaganda.

That point will also be the intent of the attendant NORML-sponsored panel discussion, which Oliver will moderate. The line-up includes Spokane attorney Frank Cikutovich; Karen Stratton from the Spokane City Council and a licensed cannabis producer; Tri-Cities cannabis shop owner Steve Lee; Pam Dyer, holistic health coach, wellness blogger, medical cannabis patient and chapter leader for NORML Women of WA – Spokane; and Jayne Wilhelm, supervising forensic scientist, Washington State Patrol Crime Lab.

Oliver expects the forum to address some of the issues that – even though cannabis use is now legal across the state – still worry marijuana proponents.

Issues of which, Oliver says, “There are still several.”

One, he says, involves the continuing limitations on home-grown cannabis. Another is what Oliver characterizes as “the questionable science behind DUI laws.” Not to mention, he says, “There are still employment issues that allow for discriminating against people over any use of cannabis, whether they’re using it on the job or not.”

It’s a fact, Oliver says, that many people – U.S. Attorney General Jess Sessions among them – still believe, despite the mass of evidence to the contrary, that “Reefer Madness” captures what they consider to be the truth.

“I really want to hold up the fact that we’re not out of prohibition yet,” Oliver says. “As funny as the movie seems, whether it was ever intended to be funny is a whole other question.”

Note the lack of irony in that last statement.

“A NORML Evening” runs 7-10 p.m. April 7, Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox, Spokane. The fund-raiser for NORML Washington includes screening of “Reefer Madness,” followed by panel discussion “Marijuana Propaganda, Law Reform and Legal Issues.” More info is available at Tickets are $10 apiece and can be purchased at the Fox Box Office or online.

Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter

Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.