The film became one of the earliest cult comedy hits during the golden age of the "midnight movie" in which theaters, especially those near colleges, would run the film at special screenings late at night during weekends.
A special-edition DVD of the film was released in 2004, with an outrageously non-realistic colorization (the various characters who smoke all exhale brightly colored pastel smoke) and a satirical commentary track by Michael J. Nelson of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988).
Inspired by the case of Victor Licata, who killed his father, mother, two brothers, and a sister with an ax in Tampa, Florida on October 16, 1933, allegedly while under the influence of marijuana. Declared unfit to stand trial for reasons of insanity, subsequent psychiatric examination at the Florida State Mental Hospital determined that Licata suffered from schizophrenia with homicidal tendencies. The Licata case was used to propagandize for the passage of the federal Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 that effectively outlawed legal sales of the "demon weed".
The origins of this film have been the subject of controversy. Although this film is not in the copyrighted registry, the opening card of Reefer Madness reads: Formerly "Tell Your Children" - An G and H Production - Copyrighted (though without a copyright date). American Film Institute Catalog of Feature Films 1931-1939 establishes its production date as 1938, even though some erroneous modern sources, apparently confusing it with some similar film, occasionally give 1936. Some say it was produced by a church group, in the wake of the Victor Licata 1933 murder case. Dwain Esper sued a distribution company in the 1960s claiming that he had produced the film for the US Army, and that he was the legal copyright owner, but he lost the case.
If you still frame the newspaper which flashes on screen just before the verdict is announced at the end of the film, underneath the headline is another front-page news story which bears the smaller headline: DICK TRACY, G-MEN LEAD SUCCESSFUL RAID; a subtle reference to the famous comic-strip detective.
According to author John Cocchi in his book "Second Feature" actress Thelma White told him she was loaned in 1938 from RKO to do the film. According to her, the film was written by a religious group and shot in three weeks.
Producer George Hirliman announced production of "Tell Your Children" in Variety, June 15, 1938. It was later sold to an assortment of distributors on a states rights basis, who then used the alternate titles of "The Burning Question" and "Reefer Madness," in addition to "Tell Your Children," depending on the region.