Cannabis documentaries are almost taboo now…
But I’ve been on a streak where I watch cannabis documentaries when I’m high. Maybe I’m tapping into the human thirst for knowledge or maybe I’ve just found everything there is to do in Grand Theft Auto. Who knows? Regardless of my habits, weed, as you know, has a rich, mostly underground history that is largely unknown to the general public.
You might have an aunt who’s really judgy about smoking or a parent that would benefit from an occasional blunt for stress or other medical purposes. These documentaries are meant to soften their edges, educate them about cannabis and its benefits and hopefully make both of you laugh along the way. Here are five essential marijuana documentaries that we at Primo think capture the established underground history of our favourite plant.
Grass: The History of Marijuana
I included this one because it’s a great piece of history now and a reminder of the leaps we’ve made with respect to weed laws. Released in 1999, Grass: The History of Marijuana isn’t privy to the last twenty years of marijuana reform and mass legalization. So it has to try and persuade people that all the myths they’ve heard about weed aren’t true and we haven’t even hit Y2K yet. In a way that makes Grass remarkable, because it was relying on so much less information than we have now to make the same points that are commonly accepted among weed advocates.
Filmmaker Ron Mann combines raw history and oral tradition skills to give the history of the plant up to that point. He does a good job of balancing the funny with the political, which makes Grass a worthy view even two decades later.
The Union: The Business Behind Getting High
The Union: The Business Behind Getting High is a 2007 Canadian cannabis documentary that mostly looks at the Canadian side of marijuana and its former flaws on drug policy. Of course, Canada has legalized weed now so in a way that dates the film, but these policy flaws are still found in many other major countries, so the documentary’s points still remain.
It focuses on decriminalization versus legalization issue, which still continues on in non-legal countries. As you may have guessed the documentary airs on the side of legalization. This allows the government to collect taxes instead of the money floating around on the black market and that same argument has been used to justify legalization in other places. The Union is interesting for the legal, political and philosophical points it made, even though you’ve heard them by now, but it’s also great as a historical piece now.
The Culture High
Adam Scorgie fell prey to all the usual propaganda surrounding weed in his Canadian upbringing and believed the government hardline that there were serious risks to using marijuana. In 2007, he was making a documentary about the plant—The Union: The Business Behind Getting High—and had his opinion shift during its making. After The Union did well, fans crowdfunded $240,000 for Scorgie to make his next pot documentary, The Culture High four years later. Essentially it dives deeper into marijuana criminalization and its fraught history in North America.
The documentary starts in 1937 with figures like Henry Anslinger and coasts through Richard Nixon’s declared a “war on drugs” before bringing the audience to the current state of weed (in 2014, the year the film premiered). The Culture High shows how this “war” led to mass incarceration on minor marijuana charges and the disproportionate targeting of African-American users. While the star-studded cast provides comic relief and poignant nuance, the film’s message is most clear when speaking to Jason David, a father whose son suffers a high level of seizures.
Hearing their story and seeing the medical and quality of life benefits for his son after using cannabis oil to treat the seizures is enough to change anyone’s mind about the plant on the spot. A good documentary to try and persuade some of your older family members that your occasional joint really isn’t that bad.
Most cannabis documentaries look at the problems of drug prohibition from the standpoint of users wrongfully arrested and persecuted. Murder Mountain, however, takes time to showcase the grower side of weed and highlights a part of the industry that most of us prefer not to address. But that’s why it’s necessary. As the title insinuates, the results of criminalization are ultimately lethal.
This weed documentary covers weed cultivators in Northern California, specifically Humboldt County, one-third of the infamous Emerald Triangle, historically a rich grow spot for marijuana that spans three counties. If you’re familiar with the industry you’ve heard of the area and this film gets into the gritty details that are often left out of casual mentions.
Through the lens of a man’s disappearance, the veneer of Humboldt County is pulled away and we see the growers—legal and illegal—who live and die trying to grow cannabis there. It also touches on the impact of legalization and regulation on small business farms and the red-tape nightmares it can bring.
Grass is Greener
“Grass is Greener” is directed and narrated by Fred Brathwaite, better known as Fab 5 Freddy from the ‘90s staple Yo! MTV Raps, and starts with the United States’ first major cultural intersection with marijuana—jazz. It then weaves together the plant’s history with the rule-breaking music of the time, from jazz to hip-hop. Freddy’s involvement allowed the film to nab interviews with rap and reggae legends like Damian Marley, Snoop Dogg, Killer Mike, B Real and Chuck D. The crux of the documentary is racial inequity, from marijuana law enforcement to inclusion in the now billion-dollar industry.
This cannabis documentary explores the United States’ relationship with cannabis through music, legislation, incarceration and medical use. Better known as Fab 5 Freddy from the ‘90s staple Yo! MTV Raps, Fred Brathwaite starts with the United States’ first major cultural intersection with marijuana—jazz. The plant was influential for vipers—the name self-professed smokers like Louis Armstrong gave themselves—who used cannabis for exploratory purposes and started the long process of normalization in a country that’s not used to rapid change.
The film then dives into Freddy’s main area of expertise, hip-hop, and how that music influenced contemporary culture’s views of weed and its uses. While the usual cast of experts and scientists make their appearance, there are interviews with rap and reggae legends like Damian Marley, everyone’s favorite uncle Snoop Dogg, Killer Mike, DMC, B Real, Chuck D, and others.
The meat of the documentary discusses how the government started calling cannabis by the name “marijuana”, which was just a ploy to maintain entrenched racist views towards Mexico and the plant’s association with that country. Freddy explores archival footage and voice recordings, which show the harsh realities about weed’s past and lawmaker’s campaign against it. At one point in the film, we hear a recording of former President Richard Nixon as he gives broad racist generalizations about members of the Jewish population who fought for legalization. The documentary also shows how legislatures use drug policy and sentencing as back-door “open secret” channels to continue propagating racial inequality and minority oppression.
“Grass is Greener” makes it a point to focus on those marginalized in the history of weed, encouraging viewers to demand some way to ensure that the same racial minorities penalized for being involved with the plant profit from the newly legitimate weed industry. There’s sure to be room in its market cap space, which is already well over $1 billion. It also addresses the stark contrast in seeing magazine covers with “weed moms” doing yoga in the sunshine with the more common image of mothers incarcerated for simple possession, most of whom are ineligible from participating in the business because of criminal records.
Freddy’s film leans strongly on balancing logic with emotion. While you can think about weed laws in the abstract and see something wrong, it’s more compelling and necessary to see families and potential businesses that have been ravaged by the War on Drugs, including multiple-year sentences for possession charges of less than 1 gram.
These types of discussions about history, race, politics, and injustice are more necessary now than ever as half the country allows marijuana in some form. It might stir the ire of staunch conservatives, most of its points are vetted and accepted by the cannabis community at large. But it does a solid job of touching on little known history with modern implications and bringing together cultural voices from science, music, and politics to support its position that we should strive for justice and fairness in all things, especially weed. These types of discussions about history, race, politics, and injustice are more necessary now than ever as cannabis continues to spread as a legal plant.