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“Reefer” is a slang term for cannabis dating back to at least the 1930s. At the time it was a coded word jazz musicians used to refer to cannabis in their songs. The term rose to infamy with the release of the 1936 propaganda film Reefer Madness, which portrayed students and youth committing heinous crimes or suffering psychological breakdowns due to smoking cannabis.

“What kind of reefer are you smoking there?”

“The irony of Reefer Madness is it makes me want to smoke more.”

History of reefer

Reefer and cannabis are one and the same. Reefer may carry a derogatory connotation due to the term’s prevalence in the melodramatic film and subsequent satirical references.

There are a couple theories as to where the term “reefer” originated: Some speculation points to a sailing ship’s reefers—the sailors responsible for rolling the sails—because the folded sails resembled a rolled joint. It may also come from the Spanish language, in this case “grifo,” which was negative slang for a marijuana user. In the 1930s, the term was popular in the jazz world to obscure marijuana as the subject of many songs, such as Cab Calloway’s 1932 hit “The Reefer Man.” 

But the film Reefer Madness‘ is what brought the term into the popular lexicon as a means to demonize cannabis consumers and to criminalize the plant itself. As cannabis converged with hippie culture in the 1970s, the film was heralded as satire by cannabis activists, and nowadays is used in a self-deprecating context.