Cannabis: Virginity-obliterator. Good girl-assassin. Bad girl-breeder. Crime-kindler. Morals-murderer. All it takes is a hit of a joint to make you, an otherwise well-behaved, self-respecting, chastity belt-wearing young woman rip off your clothes and fall victim to the seven deadly sins and more importantly, have a lot of random, slutty sex. As for you men out there, well, it’s the marijuana making you into a homicidal lothario who can’t help but fall prey to womanly wiles and prospects of pleasure, under a hazy cloud of smoke from hell.

That is, at least, what the “anti-drug” propaganda films of the 1930s, ʼ40s and ʼ50s would have you believe. To briefly backtrack, it wasn’t until the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was formed in 1930, headed by the esteemed Harry J. Anslinger, that American society harbored any general concern for the “dangers” and “evils” of cannabis. (Anslinger acted as the Bureau’s commissioner from 1930 to 1962. If he offers another takeaway, it’s that an intense and irrational hatred of drugs, or anything deemed a drug, grants you professional longevity.)

The year 1924 saw the release of Notch NumberOne, a Western melodrama with a plot revolving around the violence that ensues after one character smokes “loco weed,” and Jewel Robbery followed in 1932, a film about a robber who uses marijuana cigarettes and hot blondes, not guns, to hold up a fancy Vienna jewelry store. Then there was the most famous, and possibly most absurd, examples of these films: 1936’s very racist Reefer Madness. Intended for “adults only,” cannabis plays the ultimate villain, leading a group of innocent, pushed teenagers to manslaughter, attempted rape, a general descent into insanity from which there is no return, and, worst of all, sex with people they don’t even really like, along with a slew of other deviant acts. Marihuana, out the same year, billed itself as an exposé “divulging heretofore unheard of orgies of youths’ dissipation” and revolves around Berma, a stereotypical goody-goody who gets addicted after a single inhale at a party, hallucinating, getting knocked up and becoming a dealer, in that order.

According to these movies, not only is the prospect of using cannabis a deeply moral dilemma, sex and smoking are inextricably linked. They speak of “mad thrills,” “wild parties,” unleashed passions” and “weird orgies” (I don’t know about you, but I find only one of those items remotely off-putting), all of which are to be blamed on cannabis. We obviously know now this connection is essentially fiction, though some insist on its mildly aphrodisiac effects, but the posters for and content of these movies are so over-the-top, preposterously sexually charged and visually sexed-up, they hammer an alternate reality. Sure, they seem campy or kitschy now and they’re all too easy to laugh at, but they also warrant more than a raised eyebrow.

Moreover, if they’re meant to deter people from anything, then message not exactly received. On the contrary, such films pitched by producers on sex appeal speak of carnal lust and unfettered desire. Even the thought of “frightful perversions” elicits some undeniable intrigue. The graphics were unarguably created to grab attention and seemingly constructed to simultaneously arouse guys and put a scare in girls. The question begs to be raised: Are these gravely misguided public service bulletins against what’s been deemed a drug or is this straight-up super-softcore porn under the thin, unconvincing veil of genuine concern and societal protection? And to whom were the films aimed to appeal: horny young guys, creepy old men, equally creepy religious (and possibly old) folk, haters of the female gender or all of the above?

Just look to the visuals. The poster for Assassin of Youth, also known as Cannabis, features a woman with her body thrust forward, head back in agony or ecstasy or more likely both, and strappy slip dress escaping from her ample breasts. Flaming Passion, the “story of a high school girl led into a life of shame,” showcases another legs half-spread in lust, kissing a man on top of her, while the devil looks on eagerly. The cover of Marihuana by William Irish is only slightly subtler, with a made-up brunette reclining seductively, while a man offers her a lit joint and she guides his hand towards her parted lips with her own. Marijuana Girl, similarly, “couldn’t say no to dope!” and “traded her body for drugs and kicks!” But she clearly could say no to clothes that perform their function, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Actually, there’s a whole slew of “marijuana girls,” and they have more in common than a devilish weakness for weed. They are all enticing and glamorous-looking, with red-manicured nails, wearing slinky dresses, sheer thigh-highs or simply sexy, even chic ensembles.

So are these women virginal victims or self-possessed femme fatales, seasoned scholars with summa cum laude degrees from the school of seduction? I suppose the takeaway is that getting stoned inspires a swift yet conclusive shift from the former to the latter. All it takes is a puff or two and next thing you know you’re pulling up your skirt to flash some bare thigh, reclining on a couch in a come-hither manner and begging the nearest guy in the room to mount you as he offers you another hit of that joint. Or if you are Joan Staples in High School Confidential, a 1958 misguided morality flick billed as a crime drama, you’re already hooked on the stuff, out of money, and messing up other people’s lives. This flick also features the very platinum, very hourglass-figured Mamie Van Doren (below), known as one of the first actresses to emulate Marilyn Monroe’s signature look, as a blatantly beckoning aunt who hits on and makes out with a teenaged boy.

Each is “a good girl until she lights a reefer,” a notion that informs young men, if they want to have a rollicking fun time, they’d better come prepared with some weed. Telling guys, “Women will do anything for it!” will only make them want to give girls that reefer. Duh.

Just look at a quote from Anslinger, who, in 1961, recalled a story he had heard: “One adolescent gave a picture to an agent of a typical ‘smoker’ in an apartment or ‘pad:’ ‘The room was crowded… It was, like, crazy, couples lying all over the place, a woman screaming out in the hall. Two fellows were trying to make love to the same girl and this girl was screaming and crying and not making any sense. Her clothes were mostly pulled off and she was snickering and blubbering and trying to push these two guys away.’

Sheer silliness aside, there’s nothing “typical” about this scene, unless you’re describing a “typical” college frat party gang-rape scenario. If any substance has been linked to such occurrences, it’s alcohol, but that’s an article for another day.

The theme of “good girls gone bad” is about as old as storytelling itself, as is that of lost innocence. If you’re going to humor the notion “good girls” can go “bad,” the only causes of such a seismic character shift are the hormones brought on at adolescence and old-fashioned boredom, which is why middle-class suburban teenagers are so terrifying. Here we see that double standard-propagating dichotomy that’s been reoccurring in pop culture for the past century and still lives on today.

The issue with these crappy films is that they’re basically beat-off material marketed as public service announcements. There is no way one could argue these images and scenes aren’t destined to appeal to males who are primed and ready to get aroused. It’s already accepted these are exploitation films, and there’s a healthy chance they could fall into the category of sexploitation films, as well. What’s shocking about that? Sex sells, and if you’re not going to buy drugs from your local pusher, you might as well purchase some sad, poor man’s version of actual pornography.

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