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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My last 4/20 “Celebration”: Reflections on New York Legalization on a Bittersweet Tuesday Evening

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. 

Reefer Madness Talk Poster
Reefer Madness screening poster. Image courtesy of the author.

Two nights ago, I was in my car, headed to Utica College for a film screening and discussion. Earlier in the day, I had presented a conference paper for this past year’s cancelled American Historical Association meeting, which has been holding virtual online sessions over the past few months. I was thinking back to when Colorado passed its state referendum legalizing adult-use cannabis in 2014. At the time, I had wondered how I would celebrate if New York ever got around to legalizing marijuana. Since it was April 20, I imagined my first “legal” celebration of the so-called high holiday. I certainly didn’t imagine spending the entire day preparing for two public talks and abstaining.

I actually chuckled to myself for a bit. But then, immediately, my thoughts shifted as my phone rang and my brother informed me that the jury in the case of Derek Chauvin had come back with three guilty verdicts. When I had left the house, the jury was still in deliberations, and, so, it caught me a little off guard. Finally, some justice. But what sort of justice? Just then I pulled into the Utica College lot and checked in with Covid screener. The awareness hit me that I was about to lead a potentially whimsical screening of Reefer Madness, the absurd 1930s exploitation film, and discuss the arrival of legal weed in New York as part of the post-film discussion. I reckoned with the fact that this ridiculous film, along with all of the other absurdities in the war on drugs—even as we chuckle—has had really significant consequences that have been building for generations.

At that moment, I became certain about something I had felt for some time: legal weed has stopped being celebratory. I’ve never had to worry about my relationship with cannabis, even though I’ve had plenty of times when it could have caused serious problems. I’ve had no fewer than FOUR police interactions either while weed was in plain sight or with marijuana actively burning in my car. Yet, I have no marijuana-related infractions or arrests on my record, and I’ve never been mistreated by police. By contrast, when defending the police’s use of deadly force in the 2014 killing of Michael Brown, far too many people (including members of my own community) justified murder, in part, by highlighting Brown’s past relationship with marijuana.

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A Century of Drug Use – AHA2021 Panel Presentation on 4/20

The annual meeting of the American Historical Association, to be held in Seattle, was called off due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As part of this year’s replacement online virtual AHA2021 conference, four drug historians, including Points Contributing Editor Bob Beach, will be presenting their research about drug users in modern history on Tuesday, April 20, at 1:00PM EST. The panel is titled, “A Century of American Drug Use: Psychoactive Drugs Among Native Americans, Hippies, and the Working Poor.”

Virtual AHA Panel

The online panel is free to attend, but advanced registration is required. Please click this link to register and you’ll receive instant confirmation.

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Review: “Commodifying Cannabis: A Cultural History of a Complex Plant in the Atlantic World”

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. 

Borougerdi book Commodifying Cannabis
Cover of Commodifying Cannabis

I’ve been reading about pot since before my formal history training. I’ve always been fascinated by the inclusion of the standard story about the “long history” of cannabis that seemed to appear in the introduction to just about every book or article on the subject. As a teenager/young adult first experimenting with cannabis after a childhood of “Just Say No” sobriety, I was somehow comforted to know that I could tap into the wonders of a cannabis high in the same way that many ancient societies had in India, China, or the Middle East.

I have since learned a lot more about the plant, and it is clear that my assumptions had been based on problematic conceptions of “other” cultures. The growing historical literature about intoxicants has further challenged my formerly overly simplistic understandings about how societies manage drug use and about how drug policies and public opinion interact to shape beliefs about drugs. I’ve been struck, though, that the connection between ancient uses of cannabis and our more recent social and cultural contexts have often been missing from these analyses. Such a long-term historical perspective could help us better understand the dynamic flows of drug knowledge across time and place.

Bradley J. Borougerdi’s 2018 book Commodifying Cannabis seeks to make these types of connections. Borougerdi focuses on the Anglo-American Atlantic World and describes the plant as a “triple-purpose” cultural commodity. He builds on previous work by scholars like Isaac Campos who has previously investigated how re-interpretations of Spanish and indigenous knowledge influenced the circulation of information about cannabis in Mexico. Borougerdi, here, examines how orientalist assumptions shaped knowledge about the plant as it moved through the Anglo-American world. He argues that the different meanings of cannabis—attached to its different modes of use—dictated the trajectory of cannabis commodification in the early modern period, the prohibition of cannabis in the nineteenth century, and the recent re-commodification of cannabis.

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Sensationalism in Defense of Anti-Narcotics is no Vice: Revisiting the Cinematic History of Reefer Madness

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. 

In a recent appearance on the Fiber Nation podcast, I was asked about the significance of Reefer Madness: Tell Your Children, the cult-classic film from the 1930s. As readers of Points are probably aware, the film follows the exploits of young Mary (played by Dorothy Short) and Bill (Kenneth Craig) as they get introduced and eventually fall victim to the ravages of “Marihuana,” the “Assassin of Youth.” Rediscovered in the 1970s, the film stands as a monument to the ignorance and hysteria surrounding the so-called Reefer Madness era of the 1930s, and it remains a frequent topic of popular discussions about marijuana. In addition to the discussion on Fiber Nation, an episode of Bong Appetite, a show I recently reviewed for Points, featured the film in its “Pothead Sleepover Party” episode (S1E5).

But the single-minded focus of drug reformers or historians on this one movie obscures the richer history of marijuana-themed films in the pre-World War Two period. Analyzing newspaper coverage of two other films, the appropriately titled Marihuana (1936) and Assassin of Youth (1938), adds a layer of complexity to our understanding of contemporary debates about censorship and the value of sensational films. Press reporting about these two lesser-known films highlights the, perhaps, surprising willingness of local newspapers and authorities outside of major cities to harness the sensationalism of these movies to communicate and educate the “real” dangers that this “new drug” posed to naïve youth.

Advertisement for the film Marihuana from the June 9, 1936, issue of the Modesto Bee (California)

Marihuana, written by Hildegarde Stadie and directed by Dwain Esper, was released in 1936. The story follows Burma “Blondie” Roberts (played by Harley Wood), who becomes ensnared by the dope trade, gives up her child to adoption, and turns to a life of crime. The film’s first showing (that I have been able to document) appears to have been in March 1936 at the Broadway Theater in Oakland. The Oakland Tribune touted the film as an “authentic study of the Marihuana menace,” “made in conjunction with Federal and State narcotic agents.”[1] Similar reviews followed its run into El Paso, Texas, in June, and Galveston in July.

The film did not elude criticism and censorship. Later in July in advance of a three-day run at the Rialto Theater, The Humboldt Standard (California) called the film “daring” but also warned that it was not recommended for children. Perhaps to assuage local critics, the theater screened Marihuana along with a filmed lecture entitled “Crime and Sex Fools” and the short film, “March of Crime in 1936.”[2]

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Teaching Points: Lessons from Drug History for the Classroom

Editor’s Note: In a recent post, contributing editor Bob Beach previewed his course offering for this past term and argued for the urgency of the moment in his decision to snap-adapt his 100-level survey courses into a survey of the history of public health and public safety, conceived loosely around an historical exploration of timely current events (the pandemic, and policing). In this post, he shares his experience this term.

The first time it happened was during an ADHS conference. David Courtwright, during a talk on non-food addictions, offered an interesting idea for managing student cell phone use in class, drawing on harm reduction strategies from drug addiction studies. For the first five weeks of my next term, I started administering a “maintenance dose” of cell phone use about half-way through each session. While the experiment outlived its usefulness in short order, I started to see my field of study reflected in my work as an instructor in ways that went beyond the history.

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Pot on Television: A Break from Election Anxiety

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

It needed to be done. After an election day [week] spent trying to avoid the inane punditry on cable news (by endlessly refreshing news sites and counting the number of different ways CNN.com tried to headline Joe Biden’s impending electoral victory), I decided to take a break and binge-watch a few recently released cannabis-themed shows I had planned on reviewing for Points in the coming months.

As someone who isn’t a culinary expert (but has 12 years’ of foodservice background), isn’t a particularly avid watcher of food shows (though I’m still obsessed with Alton Brown’s Good Eats), nor is a television critic (though an avid fan of the small-screen), what follows is my review of Vice TV’s Bong Appétit (2016-2017) and its third season re-boot Bong Appétit: Cook-Off (2019), alongside a brief introduction to the Netflix shows Cooked on High (2018) and Netflix’s Cooked with Cannabis (2020).

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Points Election Update

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

It almost seems, given the existence of much more pressing matters, that a Points election preview is not even worth our time. As a personal matter, I’ll take that stance explicitly at the end of all of this. But as a drug historian, writing to folks interested in drug policies, such matters are always worth some of our time. Let’s take a quick break from Trump’s COVID diagnosis, two recent debates and a cancelled third, and ongoing conflict over Trump’s SCOTUS nomination, and review some of the key drug policy issues that will figure into the 2020 election season.

Trump’s criminal justice, like much of his policy strategies, center on public relations and marketing

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