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Drawing the Peddler: “Reefer Madness” in Four Editorial Cartoons

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach. Beach is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY.

Everyone loves a good editorial cartoon. They dramatize contemporary issues in newspapers, in magazines, and, increasingly, in online publications. They routinely engage in a visual form of incisive social critique. And they can be funny—although over the years some of the “humor” has come from degrading caricatures of racial and gendered stereotypes.

For all of these reasons, editorial cartoons are useful teaching tools for historians, and they routinely appear in history textbooks, historical websites, and even on history exams. Currently, some of my students in a semester-long guided research project are using political cartoons to explain aspects of US drug history. (Others in the class are analyzing advertisements or newspaper reporting, and I will share more about the course in a future post).

Given the press bonanza around cannabis during the “reefer madness” era of the 1930s, I have been surprised during my research and teaching to have found only four cartoons from the period that specifically mentioned marijuana. To be sure, there were plenty of cartoons that focused on related issues like “narcotics” control—which often included cannabis—and the Uniform State Narcotic Act. Such cartoons, however, tended to focus on heroin (usually represented by snake imagery) and have not been useful for my marijuana research. There was also another interesting 1940 cartoon that mentioned marijuana in a very different context. This image depicted South American countries being stupefied—like a “Mexican” marijuana user—by “Nazi Propaganda” [1]

Despite spilling less editorial cartoon ink than might be expected given the sheer volume of press generated on the subject during the 1930s, these four identified cartoons present a specific and surprisingly nuanced take on Reefer Madness. They illustrate that the marijuana peddler was often the central focus of the evolving American war on cannabis. Drawn by four different cartoonists in four different cities, the four peddler characters were remarkably similar. In each image, the peddler was not only the source of the drug, but also seemed to be the source (perhaps more than the drug, itself) of all the problems associated with the drug trade.

Left: “Idol of Both,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, June 5, 1930; Right: “One Place to Get Tough,” Cleveland Press, November 13, 1936. Click on image above for to see larger version.

In 1930, Frank Temple, a cartoonist working at the Times Picayune in New Orleans, published a cartoon entitled “The Idol of Both” (above left) [2]. We see the “marihuana peddler” casting a shadow called “drug-inspired crime,” both of which are subject to the “penalty of felony.” The pre-reefer madness hype against cannabis occurred in several places, mostly in the Southwest, and we might expect a pre-reefer madness cartoon to come from that part of the country. But a 1926 narcotic survey conducted by Dr. Carleton Simon in Louisiana focused attention on the prevalence of cannabis smoking in New Orleans, particularly around the Jazz community, and local laws started to appear. (As an aside, this cartoon was used as cover art for the 1999 Lindesmith Center reprint of Richard Bonnie and Charles Whitebread’s classic The Marijuana Conviction).

In late 1936, as national attention ramped up around the drug, it was increasingly implicated in violence, murder, and suicide, Cleveland Press cartoonist Willard Combes published “One Place to Get Tough,” dramatizing what Temple’s 1930 cartoon had merely implied (above right) [3]. Local events were a possible inspiration. A recent investigation in Cleveland had led to a series of arrests of suppliers “responsible for the outbreak of East Side slashings and purse snatchings in the last month.” According to one source, recently arrested 38-year-old Joseph Martinez, his wife Lily, and three others were allegedly supplying students at Central High School [4]. The cartoon doesn’t delve into the sensationalism of purse snatchings or slashings, instead lauding police authorities for violently clamping down on the peddlers.

New Cop on the Beat Cartoon (1937)

“There a New ‘Cop’ on the Bear,” Modesto Bee, September 28, 1937.

In October 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act (MTA) went into effect, and the United States, in response to the reefer madness press blitz, reached a consensus around regulating the drug. In the days leading up to enactment of the MTA, the Fresno and Modesto Bee’s editorial pages announced: “There’s a New ‘Cop’ On The Beat” (left) [5]. In this cartoon, a uniformed Uncle Sam replaces the city cop strolling the beat. The peddler character appears in this image, but in the presence of federal police authority, he is being pushed to the wall.

But the emphasis on pot was short lived, and federal attention soon focused on opioid control after the passage of the MTA. In February 1938, for example, the Sheboygan Press’s cartoonist published “Look What’s Going on Behind Your Back, Uncle,” (below) where we see Uncle Sam patrolling seas for heroin smugglers while the “peddler of marihuana cigarettes and candy” sells to children [6]. Two of the children appear naïve, while a third boy enters the scene carrying household items, presumably stolen, to pay for his newly acquired habit.

Look What's Going on Behind Your Back, Uncle cartoon (1938)

“Look What’s Going On Behind Your Back, Uncle,” Sheboygan Press, February 28, 1938.

Unlike other drug substances frequently depicted in political cartoons—like alcohol and opioids—these few marijuana-themed images emphasized the nefarious actions of the drug peddlers as opposed to the drug’s negative effect on users. Even as other visual media like comic books and movie posters capitalized on more sensational marijuana imagery, editorial cartoonists were more restrained.

Instead, the genre that routinely relied on sensational caricatures to make political points seems to have limited its marijuana commentary to emphasizing control of drug peddlers. It is hard to speculate about motives, but, given the increased criminalization of street-level peddlers in the decades to come, these four cartoonists demonstrated a realistic (though no less problematic) interpretation of marijuana control during the chaotic thirties and beyond.



[1] Cargill, “The Marijuana Smoker,” New York Times, July 28, 1940.

[2] Keith Temple, “Idol of Both,” Times Picayune, June 5, 1930.

[3] “One Place to Get Tough,” Cleveland Press, November 13, 1936.

[4] “Police Seize Marijuana, Nab Three,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, November 12, 1936; “Marihuana Cigarets Sold High School Pupils,” Times Recorder, November 12, 1936; “Marihuana Cigarets Sold High School Pupils”; “Police Seize Marijuana, Nab Three”; “Seek Source of Narcotic in Lorain,” Chronicle Telegram, November 12, 1936; “Arrest Five for Possession of Narcotic Weed,” Chronicle Telegram, November 13, 1936; “Source of Loco Weed Is Hunted in Lorain Area,” Lima News, November 13, 1936.

[5] “There’s A New ‘Cop’ On The Beat,” Fresno Bee, September 28, 1937; “There’s A New ‘Cop’ On The Beat,” Modesto Bee, September 29, 1937.

[6] “Look What’s Going On Behind Your Back, Uncle,” Sheboygan Press, February 28, 1938. This editorial cartoon appears to have been a visual representation of an editorial article that ran a week earlier, “The Road to Crime,” Sheboygan Press, February 16, 1938.

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