The curse of marijuana abuse is spreading across the United States of America like a plague and must be halted. Parents are instructed to learn what they can about the evils of this narcotic and warn their children against it. Dr Carroll (Joseph Forte) is holding a talk about the menace for the horrified parents of the students at his school, where he tells them that marijuana is more addictive than opium, morphine and heroin, and will lead to hallucinations, violence and sexual misconduct - you just have to read the headlines in the newspapers to see that this is the case. To illustrate his points, he settles down to tell the meeting about a recent case they may have heard about, one which happened in their city, near their school, but about which he knows the real facts...
Written by Arthur Hoerl, from a story by Lawrence Meade and with additional dialogue by Paul Franklin, Reefer Madness was originally known as Tell Your Children, and over the years had its reception transformed from being one of the expose films popular at the time to being widely regarded as a camp classic made by people who had no idea what they were talking about. Its relentlessly sensationalist tone is hard to take seriously, that's for sure, but its moralising is equally suspect as it's clearly an exploitation movie dressed up with a serious message in an attempt to win ill-deserved credibility, credibility that completely evaporated around the seventies when it was re-released to college crowds in America to laugh at in derision, usually as they puffed away themselves.
Tobacco is never questioned, but the downward spiral in to drug abuse hell is spelt out with enthusiasm in Reefer Madness. Dr Carroll's tale is of the visitors to an apartment which is owned by two dealers in dope who lure unsuspecting teenagers into their den of vice, apparently with the "hook them while they're young" mentality of the tobacco companies, but on a reduced scale. Funnily enough, we never see anyone paying for the drugs, as on this evidence they're handed out willy-nilly to anyone the dealers catch in their net; Jack (Carleton Young), the main dealer, may be seen visiting his boss who sits at his desk tapping away at an adding machine, but possibly the main reason they want to get the kids on drugs is to bring down society.
Three innocent young people are drawn in by the promise of a party, first Jimmy (Warren McCollum) and Bill (Kenneth Craig) two exemplary students up until this point, and later Jimmy's sister - and Bill's girlfriend - Mary (Dorothy Short). One drag on the wacky baccy and they're hooked - we've already seen the piano player at the local cafe is an addict, which presumably explains his over-excited tickling of the ivories. Smoking the weed makes you laugh uncontrollably, dance wildly, and indulge in promiscuous sexual behaviour - and that's just for starters. Jimmy can't get enough which results in him mowing down a pedestrian while driving, and Bill's behaviour is suffering too. Previously these square kids have been the type who would turn down a cup of strong coffee in case it rendered them light-headed but now anything goes.
There's no need for the old chestnut about marijuana leading to harder drugs for the unwary - here marijuana is the drug to beat them all. Naturally tragedy is right around the corner, as happens when Mary ventures into the apartment looking for Jimmy. She is offered a joint, thoroughly enjoys it, and ends up almost raped by hanger-on Ralph (Dave O'Brien). I say "almost" because before it goes too far she is shot in a scuffle between Bill and Jack and the film adopts the trappings of a courtroom drama, with Bill on trial for murder, little knowing that Jack had pulled the trigger. Uncurable madness and suicide await the characters now, and if you haven't finished rolling your eyes you'll be able to see the funny side. However, all Reefer Madness looks like nowadays is bait to bring punters in with the promise of sex and violence instead of any educational value, and therefore a small masterpiece of hypocrisy. It's still not as amusing as its reputation, regardless of the deranged behaviour from the actors.