Taken seriously at the time, the "morality tale" behind Reefer Madness is now the subject of much hilarity. Posters, t-shirts and mugs are available to purchase online bearing the film’s name, and its venerated cult status is such that not only has it been re-released in cinemas and on DVD, but it has even been adapted into a musical.
Yet though the cries of “worse than death!” are now widely recognised as ludicrous, strong traces of the moralistic rhetoric underpinning Reefer Madness can still be found in contemporary debates about cannabis. In the midst of the controversy surrounding the sacking of government drugs advisor David Nutt last year, for example, the then Home Secretary Alan Johnson warned that there were “thousands at risk of being sucked into a world of hopeless despair through drug addiction,” while tabloid newspapers urged readers to be aware of a “cannabis pandemic” and the “psychotic symptoms” associated with a new strain of “super-skunk.”
Like the plot of Reefer Madness, such claims are dramatically exaggerated. David Nutt has described the risk of psychotic illness as a result of smoking cannabis as “relatively small,” and his replacement as chief government drugs advisor, Professor Les Iverson, has also gone on record saying that links between cannabis and schizophrenia are “another scaremongering tactic from the anti-cannabis brigade.” Cannabis, according to Iverson, is “one of the safer” recreational drugs.
In the past, both Nutt and Iverson have also advocated legalisation; however, very few British politicians are willing to listen. Decriminalisation of cannabis would “send out the wrong messages” they often say, perhaps with a twisted vision of drug crazed abandon playing out in their minds. Though if drug policy is really about sending out the right and wrong messages, why does a substance as vicious and harmful as alcohol remain on the market? Surely, following the “messages” logic, alcohol should similarly be the subject of a ban.
But then, like cannabis, if banned alcohol would too be driven underground – its users criminalised, prosecuted, fined or even jailed. And the justice system has already got enough on its plate, what with all the psychotic stoners already clogging up the courts. In 2008/9, for instance, there were more than 167,500 cannabis related offences recorded in England and Wales alone.
The heart of the problem is prohibition itself, for with an estimated two – five million regular cannabis users in the UK, it has clearly failed in its mission to “stamp out drugs.” A new direction is necessary, and other countries are already leading the way. The Mexican president last week called for a “fundamental debate” on the “pros and cons” of drug legalisation, and in America a bill proposing the legalisation of cannabis will be on a Californian state ballot that will take place on November 2nd.
Such moves clearly represent the future, yet in the UK our politicians remain stranded in the past – harping on about “sending out the wrong messages” as they fail spectacularly to move the wheels of history forwards and not back. It may be obvious to most that Reefer Madness is nothing more than a work of stilted fiction, but it seems that, in 2010, the stuffy British political elite are among the last still clinging desperately to its myths.