Reefer Madness


On Dec. 1, 1938, the ever-helpful FBI released a movie called Reefer Madness that “exposed” the dangers of marijuana. Bill and Mary get stoned with some friends, leading to hallucinations, sex and murder. The real craziness started in 1915 when California (of all places) made pot possession a felony punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment. Dozens of state and federal laws soon followed. California weed arrests climbed from 5,000 in 1960 to 37,000 in 1967. The FBI reports that over 10 million Americans have been arrested for pot possession since 1996. Now that is madness!

As Dylan would say, “Everybody must get stoned!” And we did, starting in the ’60s and, for many, continuing to this day. After all, we were hippies. To hear some folks tell it, you couldn’t be a hippie unless you smoked pot, as though we belonged to a secret society with decoder rings, a hippie hand shake and a flag with five leaves. I guess you could say that getting stoned was our patriotic duty.

If you’re like millions of Americans, you’ve smoked marijuana at least once and don’t need my explanation of the experience. If you haven’t tried it yet, you’re missing something extraordinary. Imagine feeling mellow and dreamy, yet insightful and aware, while connecting with other folks in happier, more accepting ways. Everything is funny. Music is awesome. You can dance and sing and laugh for hours or sit quietly in a corner contemplating the wonderfulness of an ordinary object suddenly revealing itself to you for the first time.

Many of us came from middle class families ruined by alcohol. To paraphrase Neil Young, we’d seen the bottle and the damage done. We wanted no part of it. So, as we had done with other facets of the culture we inherited, we looked for a better way, a safer, saner way to escape reality, a way that didn’t transform ordinary people into raging abusers and lifelong addicts. 

Pot was the answer, and we loved her from the start. Like a giggling little girl in a cotton dress on a spring day, she taught us to play, to laugh, to dance and to sing. She opened a hidden door into a brighter world filled with adventure and pleasure. She showed us how to party without becoming our parents.

You would have thought that ordinary folks would have applauded our discovery.  After all, weed is, without doubt, the safest of recreational drugs. Cigarettes, alcohol, cocaine, heroin and opiates are proven killers. To my knowledge, no one has ever overdosed on THC or randomly murdered anyone under its influence. Within a few hours of getting high, stoners are much more likely to be making love than making trouble.

At last, straight folks are coming to their senses. The percentage of adults who support marijuana legalization has exploded from 12% in 1969 to 83% today. In recent surveys, 70% of the general public believe that marijuana use is less of a health risk than alcohol or cigarettes. In 1946, the American Medical Association defined marijuana as a dangerous drug. In 2018, the organization changed its tune and affirmed that pot has therapeutic benefits. Today, 15 states and the District of Columbia have legalized pot for all uses. Another 20 states have approved it for medical use only. According to recent surveys, 35 million Americans smoke herb on a regular basis. Another 20 million smoke occasionally. That’s more than the number of cigarette smokers, placing it second behind alcohol as America’s favorite recreational drug. 

Just think how many lives could have been saved if folks had simply listened to the hippies and made pot their drug of choice. The 70,000 a year killed by drunk driving and drug overdoses might still be with us. The untold number of families devastated by drugs and alcohol might have been preserved. The millions arrested for pot possession could have avoided prison if only the moralists had just minded their own business.

Mark Twain once said: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” It’s astonishing how much saner America has become about marijuana since my hippie days 50-plus years ago. Let’s hope for a full recovery soon. 

Stewart Rogers is the co-author and editor of What Happened to the Hippies? published by McFarland Press. He can be reached at