Reefer is a marijuana slang term often referring to a joint. Reefer was simultaneously popularized and stigmatized by the 1930s melodramatic propaganda film “Reefer Madness,” in which cannabis lures users down a dangerous rabbit hole. In the 1971 book “Cannabis Alchemy” by R. Gold, he refers to “impregnated joints,” or joints with added cannabis extract, as reefers.
Slang for weed, the word “reefer” was first tied to marijuana culture in the 1930s. According to the records of the Oxford English Dictionary, the term first appeared in print back in 1931, when Time Magazine featured an article that noted marijuana leaves could be dried, ground, and then rolled into a reefer cigarette. These cigarettes “are bootlegged under the name of 'muggles,' 'reefer,' or 'Mary Warners' ” according to Time.
Etymologists aren't entirely clear on how the term “reefer” became so closely linked to cannabis, but some, including the OED, claim it's derived from the Spanish word for marijuana, “grifa.” Others claim it was adopted from sailor slang; in sailing, to “reef” is to roll up the sail — similar to how you'd roll up a joint — and a “reefer” is the sailor who does the rolling.
The term reefer's biggest claim to fame is, without a doubt, the 1936 film “Reefer Madness.”
The 1930s saw a huge push to demonize cannabis. A massive anti-marijuana campaign, spearheaded by Harry J. Anslinger, commissioner of the newly formed Federal Bureau of Narcotics, was launched in the United States, with Anslinger and other anti-marijuana activists claiming the plant made users violent. This anti-cannabis smear campaign was, in large part, an effort to simultaneously demonize Mexican immigrants, who used “marihuana” for recreational and medicinal purposes.
One of the tactics used to scare the public and alert them about the “dangers” of cannabis was propaganda films — the most visible being “Reefer Madness.” The film follows a group of high-school students who attend “reefer parties” at an unmarried couple's house — and find themselves in all kinds of trouble as a result.
“Reefer Madness” was a melodramatic account of the dangers of marijuana and lacked any basis in fact or science. The film was poorly received upon its release, but thanks to it's over-the-top, campy nature, experienced a resurgence in the 1960s as a cult classic. Today, the film is embraced by the cannabis community as satire and is frequently screened at midnight showings across the country. The film was also satirized in musical form in 2005's “Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical,” starring Kristen Bell, Christian Campbell, Alan Cumming, Neve Campbell, and Ana Gasteyer.
Other pop culture references
While “Reefer Madness” is the term's most well-known pop culture reference, it's by no means the only reference. The term reefer has been a popular term since the 30s — particularly in music. Popular references to reefer include:
- “Reefer Songs” is a 23-track compilation set of jazz songs from the 1920s, '30s, and '40s primarily about marijuana but also other drugs. It was released in 1989 and includes 1932's “Have You Ever Met That Funny Reefer Man,” recorded by Cab Calloway and his orchestra, and “If You're A Viper (The Reefer Song),” released by Fats Waller in 1943
- “Smoke 2 Joints,” released by The Toyes in 1983 and covered by Sublime in 1992
- “Champagne and Reefer,” released by Muddy Waters in 1981
- “Reefer Man,” released by Cypress Hill in 2017