Drawing the Peddler: “Reefer Madness” in Four Editorial Cartoons

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach. Beach is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY. 

Everyone loves a good editorial cartoon. They dramatize contemporary issues in newspapers, in magazines, and, increasingly, in online publications. They routinely engage in a visual form of incisive social critique. And they can be funny—although over the years some of the “humor” has come from degrading caricatures of racial and gendered stereotypes.

For all of these reasons, editorial cartoons are useful teaching tools for historians, and they routinely appear in history textbooks, historical websites, and even on history exams. Currently, some of my students in a semester-long guided research project are using political cartoons to explain aspects of US drug history. (Others in the class are analyzing advertisements or newspaper reporting, and I will share more about the course in a future post).

Given the press bonanza around cannabis during the “reefer madness” era of the 1930s, I have been surprised during my research and teaching to have found only four cartoons from the period that specifically mentioned marijuana. To be sure, there were plenty of cartoons that focused on related issues like “narcotics” control—which often included cannabis—and the Uniform State Narcotic Act. Such cartoons, however, tended to focus on heroin (usually represented by snake imagery) and have not been useful for my marijuana research. There was also another interesting 1940 cartoon that mentioned marijuana in a very different context. This image depicted South American countries being stupefied—like a “Mexican” marijuana user—by “Nazi Propaganda” [1]

Despite spilling less editorial cartoon ink than might be expected given the sheer volume of press generated on the subject during the 1930s, these four identified cartoons present a specific and surprisingly nuanced take on Reefer Madness. They illustrate that the marijuana peddler was often the central focus of the evolving American war on cannabis. Drawn by four different cartoonists in four different cities, the four peddler characters were remarkably similar. In each image, the peddler was not only the source of the drug, but also seemed to be the source (perhaps more than the drug, itself) of all the problems associated with the drug trade.

Left: “Idol of Both,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, June 5, 1930; Right: “One Place to Get Tough,” Cleveland Press, November 13, 1936. Click on image above for to see larger version.

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