By Paul Charman

Eighty years ago an anti-cannabis movie called Reefer Madness burst onto the scene.

The movie is now considered silly, misleading and a bit camp but the message was clear: "don't even think about smoking dope".

The film spawned an entire genre of public education anti-drug movies, and these lasted for decades.

Invariably posters featured a reefer-smoking demon, with a sinister arm extended round an impressionable young woman.

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Now I'm wondering if the basic idea could assist in today's war against crystal methamphetamine use. No, hear me out!

The 1936 film
The 1936 film "Reefer Madness" spawned an entire genre of public education anti-drug movies, and these lasted for decades.

The classic anti-drug movies had their faults, but at least the choice was stark and unequivocal.

Riches versus poverty, sound mind versus the psych ward, happy home versus jail.

And in my view, this made such films effective, at least in the short term.

Art has been used to attack dangerous drugs since the days of William Hogarth's
Art has been used to attack dangerous drugs since the days of William Hogarth's "Gin Lane" prints.

Over-stated dangers

Yes, a lot of these anti-drug movies over-stated the dangers of weed.

For example: except for those with a pre-disposition to psychotic disorders, schizophrenia, bipolar and a several other conditions, it turns out that marijuana does not cause madness at all.

Once audiences became sophisticated enough to realise they'd been duped, it's said that such movies actually encouraged more marijuana use, rather than diminishing it.

For all that, I wish there was something attacking P today, bound up in a similarly compelling and emotive narrative.

Yes, I suppose we could risk exaggerating the evils of P too.

Invariably posters featured a reefer-smoking demon, arm extended round impressionable young woman ...
Invariably posters featured a reefer-smoking demon, arm extended round impressionable young woman ...

But endless efforts to rate how dangerous drugs can be (including alcohol, no argument from me) seem pointless.

P is manifestly bad - bad enough to warrant special attention.

It seems to be behind a big slice of those burglaries that occur every seven minutes in New Zealand.

The folk coming through your window to steal your stuff are likely either high on P, or looking to sell your possessions to get some.

The classic anti-drug movies had their faults, but at least the choice was stark and unequivocal.
The classic anti-drug movies had their faults, but at least the choice was stark and unequivocal.

But more to the point, every addict's journey with this drug began a first taste. But why?


Health education and media reports on the likely consequences, do not seem to dissuade them.

Mighty popular culture

Perhaps we need the might of the popular culture to do so; same as in those Government funded anti-smoking and drink driving ads.

These are the best in the world, the marvellous work of homespun writers, directors and video production people, they get replicated internationally.

Why not harness all this Kiwi creativity to attack P?

As for a home-grown TV drama - I mean shows aimed at dissuade folk from taking meth, I'm not quite so sure.

Perhaps we'd get a useful Once Were Warriors, but perhaps not.

The work of Kiwis who produce road safety and anti-smoking advertisements gets copied worldwide.
The work of Kiwis who produce road safety and anti-smoking advertisements gets copied worldwide.

I fear that our Kiwi film-makers would just make the whole thing look a bit too rock'n'roll - just wee bit too dark and exciting.

I mean, portraying a lot of fights, suicides and untimely young deaths: arguably such content really is part of the story, but portraying it too graphically just adds to the allure for some.

But an anti-P message is always going to be controversial.

No love lost

There's no love lost between drug education and treatment organisations, who constantly compete to fund their programmes. And one way they seem to have to draw attention to themselves is to attack any campaign they consider flawed of misleading.

Fair enough though, I do see their point.

Any campaign aiming to dissuade meth use needs none of the embellishment and sensationalism associated with the old Reefer Madness genre.

The truth is stark enough already.

Advertising has long been used to combat drug addiction.
Advertising has long been used to combat drug addiction.

I'm thinking of a true story an old friend named Sam* told me, about a small North Island town we both knew well, a place now hit hard by P.

A dealer swept in - handsome guy with the gift of the gab - and was soon popular with almost everyone, even at the local volunteer fire brigade.

He swept a young woman off her feet, got her pregnant and the town hooked on meth.
Before he'd left (moved on to the next town to do exactly the same thing), this young woman had stolen from her elderly parents to feed her P habit.

Art versus evil

Her parents' business was ruined and she ended up physically disfigured by P use, but still living at home.

Sam says he's seen meth hit other small communities in other parts of rural New Zealand.

Of course, it happens in the big city too. Rich people, poor people, educated, uneducated, high achievers, low achievers - all getting ruined by meth.

And such human tragedy is deservedly the stuff of a compelling narrative - as in the work of William Hogarth, Dostoevsky or Dickens.

Oh yes, we'll need more police, customs and drug rehabilitation people to win this fight.

But let's also remember the power art has to counteract evil.

Reefer Madness was an overblown cautionary tale against drug use.
Reefer Madness was an overblown cautionary tale against drug use.

* Not his real name