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Thoughts on writing and publishing, and the various sources of entertainment...
A weekly column by Abel G. Peña, best known for his Star Wars work.

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THE PHILODOXER for 08/26/2007
Madness? This-is-Reefer!!!

It's first effect is sudden, violent, uncontrollable laughter; then come dangerous hallucinations--space expands--time slows down, almost stands still ... fixed ideas come next, conjuring up monstrous extravagances--followed by emotional disturbances, the total inability to direct thoughts, the loss of all power to resist physical emotions ... leading finally to acts of shocking violence ... ending often in incurable insanity. In picturing its soul-destroying effects no attempt was made to equivocate.... Because the dread Marihuana may be reaching forth next for your son or daughter ... or yours ... or YOURS!

-- Introduction to Reefer Madness

Reefer Madness

If it is rare for a piece of propaganda to garner acclaim beyond its intended audience, it's totally ludicrous for it to be championed by those it slanders. The catastrophic anti-drug film Reefer Madness has spawned such a phenomenon.

1936--the Great Depression is making its exit and World War II has just begun. The boardgame Monopoly is so popular it's selling out of stores. Radio, not television, is the opiate of the masses, and jazz rules the airwaves. The innocuous Dick and Jane ("Look. See Dick. See Dick run.") are teaching children to read. The Marx Brothers, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Fred Astaire, and Ginger Rogers are cinema's kings and queens. Playboy, Elvis, and the atomic bomb all have yet to be invented. It is the dawn of the Greatest Generation.

Into this milieu comes Reefer Madness.

This distorted tale of ganja gone wild was reputedly put into production by a party of concerned Christians, to be released under the preachy title Tell Your Children. But the movie was soon picked up by a rascally entrepreneur who spliced in some lewd scenes, applied its now infamous sobriquet, and marketed Reefer Madness as an exploitation film that soon died a quiet death. However, when the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws unearthed the movie from its crypt in the Library of Congress nearly forty years later, it rose like Lazarus to the resuscitating chorus of hysterically laughing pot smokers everywhere.

How did an anti-marijuana movie enter the stoner's pantheon of Half-Baked, Super Troopers, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, and Dark Side of the Rainbow?

You see, the decades have not been kind to Reefer Madness, a fact from which the movie now derives its improbable popularity. Directed by Louis Gasnier and written by Arthur Hoerl, Lawrence Meade, and Paul Franklin, Father Time must've been smoking some serious Buddha when he decided to reverse this story from moral drama into total farce. Its cult status is owed to numerous factors, not the least of which is its vilification of marijuana (a.k.a. "reefer") as the "assassin of our youth" and "more deadly" than even the truly soul-pulverizing drugs heroin and morphine. Science and simple observation have since proved that the "demon weed" is actually among the most benign of controlled substances and likely far less harmful than either cigarettes or alcohol.

With a short run time (67 minutes) and clichéd proto-Cleaver Family values, the simple story is eminently watchable. Four teenagers--Jimmy, Bill, Mary, and Ralph--get caught up in the crazy, sordid world of "marihuana," where kids dance the day away and succumb to their sexual appetites. Sounds pretty good so far. But you'll soon change your tune, youngster. For what soon ensues is a comic absurdity, attestable to by any habitual weed smoker: the young potheads quickly become rapists, murderers, suicides, corpses, and clinical lunatics.

The movie has rightly been criticized as wildly exaggerated, especially since the "researched" effects seen on camera are more typical of a stimulant like cocaine or even coffee than a depressant like marijuana. A marijuana "junkie" is more apt to fall asleep on you or raid your refrigerator than anything else. However, there are grains of truth in the film. Weed is a strong sexual stimulant. Weed does make a minority of people hyper, and weed does induce paranoia. But, unlike alcohol, what the reefer doesn't do is lower your inhibitions. It actually increases them, raising self-consciousness to such levels that taking actions like rape, murder, and suicide becomes as unlikely as you (yes, YOU reading this) ever winning millions of bucks in the Super Lotto.

The movie has also been panned as having obviously been made by individuals who had little to no exposure to marijuana. On this point, I beg to differ radically. In fact, quite the opposite seems true. Reefer Madness has the appearance of having been made by someone who had an overwhelming experience with the drug, someone who unfortunately looked into the abyss of human desires and became scared to death of what he saw.

There is a name for this experience in drug culture. It is called the "bad trip," a state of overwhelming panic that occurs when a person's strictly defined perceptions of reality are turned topsy-turvy during a drug experience. The response to this humbling episode can often be fear of the culprit narcotic that induced it ... and sometimes a full-fledged war on drugs.

Violence, sexual abandon, and self-destruction are powerful urges integral to the human condition. We think about these forbidden things all the time, of giving into the darker drives lurking in the pits of our souls--and much closer to the surface than we think. We give the name civilization to the evolved human ability to check these primitive desires. It is a marvel to confront and behold this darkness within ourselves. And for some, it is too much.

Watching a film like Reefer Madness lays bare the incomprehensibility of a time before the threat of nuclear holocaust, before birth control, and before rock & roll--before the Civil Rights Movement, plastic surgery, life in outer space, Internet porn, stem cells, AIDS, crystal meth and ecstasy, and suicide bombing. It is a time capsule into our recent childhood as a society and species, and whether high or not, we are right to celebrate its innocence and protectiveness with a big spankin laugh.

Chill on that demon weed till next time, dope fiends! (But if you can't resist, then learn to do it right).

- Abel G. Peña

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