Once a myth is accepted by the public, it takes an immense undertaking to dispel the misconceptions they create. Myths turn into misconceptions quite often. In health, these health errors run from the 5-second rule with food to believing a myriad of supposed remedies for the body. For over a century, marijuana has been demonized due to myths as well. In 1936, the propagation of these erroneous claims reached a new level thanks to the propaganda film Reefer Madness.
The film, which shows how cannabis destroys the life of white high schoolers of the time, is now considered an unintentional comedy. How can you not laugh at an obvious scare tactic that shows people kill and feverishly play piano all thanks to marijuana? While today we know that the antics displayed in the film are more likely to come from a drug like PCP or methamphetamines, that wasn’t the case in 1936. During this time, and one year after the film’s release, the U.S. would pass the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, marking the first step in outlawing cannabis – relegating its allowance to a short list of authorized medical and industrial uses.
The film also represented a minor wave of propaganda films which carried into the early ’40s and would demonize cannabis and seal its reputation as a gateway drug to heroin, teen pregnancy and an overall wasted life. It would take until the 1970s for the film to finally be unearthed and rolled out as the unintended mess that it has come to be known as. This reframing of the film came thanks to NORML founder Keith Stroup finding and purchasing a copy from the Library of Congress in 1972.
Since the 70s, Reefer Madness has been used by the cannabis movement as a way of shutting down the false narrative around the plant and its misconceptions. This includes using the film and its name to garner attention. Some takes on the film through the years include the low budget 1985 comedy Reefer Madness II: The True Story and 2005’s Reefer Madness: The Musical, which aired on Showtime and included stars like Kristen Bell and Alan Cumming.
Recently, in New York City, a group of cannabis supporters used the name to promote pro-cannabis awareness through live music and powerful speakers. Reefer Madness: Dispelling the Myth is a live show featuring the music of Al Smith and Friends that combines rock and soul music with the spirit of the cannabis community. “We are here to dispel the myth surrounding cannabis,” Smith told The Marijuana Times. He later added that his live show and the taping serve as a gateway for those uninformed or on the fence about cannabis. He explained that by using a night of music mixed with passionate cannabis stories, people can begin to understand cannabis a bit more.
The group behind the project, Edutainment Presents, hosted the event at New York City’s The Cutting Room on May 8th, 2018 and taped it. After looking over the footage, Smith and Edutainment Presents CEO, Dr. Arol Buntzman, saw an opportunity to serve growing markets in the cannabis industry through creative advertising. Dr. Buntzman explained in a press release that despite the industry mobilizing these markets, “very little is being done to creatively engage and entertain people interested in cannabis-related products,” adding, “That’s where our company comes in and our new show will be a hit.” Using the name Reefer Madness, the group hoped to garner attention while further negating the false claims the original film made – a process they hope to see well beyond the evening’s screening. Smith told MJT, “Imagine the showings city by city all over the country – spreading the word about the cannabis industry – what it is and is not. Thus, dispelling the myth.”
Held on November 2nd at Manhattan’s EBM Film Center, Edutainment Presents hosted the second draft of the film while offering a night of networking and discussion as well. The evening brought together roughly 50-100 attendees to the intimate venue. Guests included veteran cannabis professionals and enthusiasts, as well as novices interested in learning more. Prior to the screening, Smith and others from the film met with guests and spoke to their passions around furthering cannabis as a medical option and beyond.
The information leading up to the event gave an indication that the screening would be the final product of their Reefer Madness interpretation. However, there was a miscommunication and the event was actually more of a screening for a test audience. While slightly different from what was expected, the night embodied much of what the marijuana industry is going through today. Though a potentially great idea was presented, its current form requires a significant amount of work to make it the powerful, informative entity it could eventually become. This version focused a bit too much on the enjoyable, soulful sounds of Smith and Friends and too little on the impact statements of its incredible speakers – a point Smith notes was lost in the communication around its marketing. While renditions of “Respect” and other classics were entertaining, they lacked the connection to cannabis that other songs had. During the live show, Smith incorporated more cannabis tracks, and may factor more in later iterations of the film.
Additionally, the film was considered a documentary, but was actually a taped live show. However, the documentary-esque testimonials of the film were its most captivating parts. Speakers included Leo Bridgewater, an Army Specialist who served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, who struggled with PTSD after his honorable discharge. Since then, Bridgewater discovered the power of cannabis and became one of the most prominent activists and entrepreneurs in the tri-state area and beyond. Today, his titles include the Co-founder of the New Jersey Cannabis Commission, and the National Director for Veterans Outreach with the group Minorities for Medical Marijuana. Bridgewater’s impassioned speech in the film immediately caught the room’s attention and instantly let people know who Bridgewater was, if they hadn’t before the night started. Following the film, a Q&A was held were Bridgewater was one of the speakers who further galvanized both novice and veteran cannabis supporters to continue pushing for legalization as well as more leadership positions for women and people of color in the industry.
Other speakers’ words resonated deeply with the crowd as well, leaving them wanting more focus on the speakers in later drafts of the film. One speaker in particular, Rani Soto, summed up the importance of medical cannabis. Soto’s own battle with cancer left him prescribed opioid-based pain medication and a doctor’s advisory to not consume cannabis. After three months of using his prescribed medicine, and one particularly jarring experience where he lost track of the day, Soto turned to cannabis. Today, cancer-free, he is immersed in the cannabis movement with events like the Cutting Room and serving as the Co-founder of the New Jersey chapter of the networking community CannaGather, as well as Co-founder and COO of the New Jersey-based cannabis accelerator LeafLaunch.
Overall, the film is far from complete – something Edutainment Presents was quick to point out. During the Q&A, the team welcomed constructive criticism from the attendees – relying on a time-honored tradition in the cannabis community. The overwhelming response was for more of a focus on the speakers. This note also demonstrated what this iteration of Reefer Madness seems to have done so well with its live show. While the video was too short on speeches, the speakers demonstrated their passion and knowledge for cannabis – something that the public needs much more of. Smith’s vision of a city-by-city rendition of his show is difficult to currently envision on the screens. However, its live show, driven by a veteran performer like Smith and cannabis advocates, left attendees wanting more and shows immense promise. With a refined playlist towards cannabis, Edutainment’s live show is just about ideal for educating all ages about marijuana.
While the film has some ways to go, the efforts by Edutainment Presents represent another ambitious stab at dispelling the myths around cannabis that propaganda films, politicians, the media and general misinformation have pushed for decades. The film will need several more passes and reassessing in the editing room before becoming the piece of media the team envisions it to be. However, Smith later told MJT that both the live and stage show have already received interest from others in the space. That said, sign this writer up for tickets to the next live show. It looks like a hell of a time.