Wednesday, July 16, 2008


So one can safely say that if you went to college over the past forty years, you've tried marijuana or known someone who has smoked weed at least once. Heck, college doesn't even have to be in the mix; certain music scenes and cultural movements usually have pot as a constant companion. And with its current legislation in California, odds are if you live here you know someone who has a "club card", or at least have the knowledge that such an item is easily obtained for "medicinal purposes". I personally know three individuals from different social circles who received club cards, all for different purposes: one smokes it for stomach issues, another for arthritis, another for fabricated insomnia. It's astonishing how easily accessible it is here in the Golden State, and how lenient most cops are about possession. But ultimately federal law wins out over individual states' laws, and this drug is still far from complete stigma-free legalization and decriminalization. So I found most of the content of Ron Mann's highly liberal and completely pro-pot documentary Grass (1999) to be informative, yet this reviewer was still slightly incredulous on the truthiness found in some segments.

The film essentially runs through a history of different marijuana taxes and laws imposed by the government while constantly updating the United States' official stance on the drug, changing frequently with each administration and cultural movement. I find it hard to take every word of the film as truth since it is soooo slanted and soooo narrated by none other than hemp-growing Woody Harrelson, which he did for director Mann completely pro-bono. Knowing the history of Harrelson's activism for the sticky-icky, it's hard to take such an activist's word as complete truth when he knowingly has such an agenda. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for the decriminalization of marijuana and the abolishment of all mandatory minimum sentencing alongside the three strikes law; it's just hard for me to believe everything that comes out of an extremist's mouth, be it leftist Woody Harrelson or conservative Bill O'Reilly. But honestly, Mann couldn't have picked a better spokesman. Mann himself is definitely an extremist with an agenda to convince people of all the evils of the federal government. And I agree with most that he has to say. Most.

The film opens each new segment with the evolving sentiment of pot at the given time, be it "Marijuana will make you INSANE" or "Marijuana will make you addicted to heroine", each completely inane in their own right. Usually, or so the film says, this sentiment was dictated by Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics Harry J. Anslinger. Every film has to have an antagonist, right? And Grass certainly makes a monster out of Anslinger. Almost all the blame for each new tax or piece of legislation is brought on his head, but rightfully so; there are several decades of presidents, from FDR to Kennedy, who are signing anti-marijuana bills as Anslinger stands there, inwardly rejoicing behind their chairs. He felt that there was no benefit to the use of medicinal marijuana in any form, the irony of this being that he spent the last few years of his life taking morphine as a pain-reliever (a fact that the film fails to bring to light).

Grass also fails to mention the history of marijuana in any other country besides the US, claiming that we received our first influx of Mary Jane from our friendly Southern neighbors in Mexico. This is one of the points that I find difficult to believe, although I haven't done much further research on the topic. I'm always skeptical when white men blame and shake their fingers at white men for criminalizing a drug that minorities use to relax. Case in point: the film states that marijuana was used by poor migrant workers and farmers, mostly Mexican, as a way to unwind at the end of the day. When "white folks" found out about this drug, they used it as a way to control the Mexican population. But it worked it's way into mainstream middle class American rapidly, thus eliminating the need to blame minorities for the proliferation of the drug.

I don't think that Anslinger's motives were completely racial, and the clip from the film Reefer Madness (dir. Louis Gasnier, 1936) proves this point; this film, and the media in general, didn't only target Mexican and black minorities, but showcased middle American in a disturbing, propaganda-driven light to make marijuana seem like the biggest threat facing the US ever (note: Anslinger thinks that pot is more of a threat than post-Depression poverty, criminal violence, heroine, and disease, although he and the FBN try very hard to make a link between MJ and all these other evils).

The film has its moments of comedy, absurdity, and shocking truth; just don't expect to hear from someone who developed lung cancer from smoking the stuff. While the film is not unbiased, it does give a general overview of the history of marijuana prohibition up until the late 1990s and makes you realize that while herb is certainly a gift from the earth, it's very easy to knock it without trying it first; or for that matter, knowing all there is to know about scientific pros and cons of the drug. I'm not saying, and the film isn't either, don't knock it 'till you try it. The film is simply saying don't believe all the government-backed hype about getting hyphy.

1 comment:

TarynPrice said...

I had to watch this movie twice for school and really enjoyed it. And FYI according to all my related soc classes...the film tells no lies/makes no fabrications. Complete parallels in facts/history found in other readings and films. Really brings to light the hypocrysy and ridiculousness behind the ilegalization of this essentially harmless plant. I was ashamed to learn the racism based legislation behind pot. If anyone is reading this and goes to UCSB I highly recomend sociology of drugs and sociology of prisons and punishment taught by Chuck Terry...if you like this movie you'll LOVE the course/teacher!

PS KJ, you know FOUR ppl with cards ;)