Teaching Students About Reefer Madness: Understanding the History and Dispelling the Myths


Reefer Madness, a term that originated from a 1930’s propaganda film, has captivated the minds of people for decades. Now often viewed as a comedic and exaggerated portrayal of marijuana use, there is still much to learn from this film and the complex history surrounding it. As educators continue to navigate the topic of drugs and substance abuse with their students, understanding Reefer Madness can help to provide a more informed perspective. This article will discuss the history and misconceptions surrounding Reefer Madness and suggest ways for teachers to address this topic in the classroom.

A Brief History of Reefer Madness

Reefer Madness was created in the 1930s as an anti-marijuana propaganda film. It was initially produced by George Hirliman but was later re-released by Dwain Esper under the title “Tell Your Children.” The film was part of a broader anti-marijuana campaign driven by Harry J. Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Anslinger wanted to portray marijuana as a dangerous drug that would lead users to extreme violence, insanity, and even death.

Though widely recognized today for its highly exaggerated portrayal of marijuana use, many people at that time took it quite seriously. The film’s narrative fed into already existing fears and insecurities about drug use during the era.

Dispelling Myths about Marijuana

Providing students with accurate information about marijuana is essential for making informed choices and decisions. Here are some common myths about marijuana perpetuated by Reefer Madness:

1. Marijuana use leads to extreme violence or criminal behavior: Studies today have shown that marijuana use does not increase violent behavior; instead, it may even produce short-term calming effects on users.

2. Marijuana is highly addictive: While some individuals may develop a dependence on marijuana over time, it’s not as addictive as drugs like nicotine or opioids.

3. Marijuana leads to insanity or suicide: Contrary to the portrayal in Reefer Madness, there is no established link between marijuana use and mental illness or suicidal thoughts.

Teaching About Reefer Madness in the Classroom

As educators aim to incorporate Reefer Madness into their curriculum, here are some suggestions for effectively addressing this topic:

1. Present the historical context: Discuss the political and societal factors of the 1930s that contributed to fear-mongering related to marijuana use.

2. Use the film as a primary source: Watching parts of Reefer Madness can allow for an engaging way to discuss outdated misconceptions and biases presented in the film.

3. Open up a dialogue and discussion: Facilitate an open conversation with students, allowing them to explore their thoughts, opinions, and anxieties around marijuana use and substance abuse in general.

3. Compare and contrast historicaldrug campaigns with contemporary ones: Analyze how anti-drug messaging has evolved over time, highlighting both progress made and lingering misconceptions.


Teaching students about Reefer Madness is an opportunity to explore both the history of anti-drug campaigns and the misconceptions surrounding marijuana use. By providing students with accurate information, educators can empower them to make informed decisions about substance use. A thorough understanding of Reefer Madness not only promotes critical thinking but also nurtures empathy for those adversely affected by past propaganda efforts.