Grass

Grass

Grass is a documentary about the history of marijuana in the United States—its usage, beliefs about it, attitudes toward it, its role in popular culture, and especially its legal status.

Though it covers a lot, needless to say it leaves a great deal out. There’s only so much time in a movie, and this in fact is short for a feature film (only eighty minutes).

The film is “pro-marijuana,” or at least against marijuana being criminalized, so one needs to be aware that the material is chosen with that in mind. (Though if one somehow did do an utterly objective, utterly thorough treatment of the matter, it’s hard to believe the accumulated evidence taken in total would somehow justify the insane and futile “Drug War” that’s been going on in one form or another for decades.)

The style is more of the fast-paced, short-attention-span type than something more dry and academic. The visuals are often attention-grabbing and/or humorous, with plenty of classic clips from old propaganda “public service” or “educational” films, as might be shown in schools.

Among the clips I got a kick out of is the one at the start of the movie, which is the opening to precisely one of those old black and white alarmist anti-drug films. In big scary letters, the opening title says “Marijuana: Threat or Menace?” a delightful false dilemma.

I also enjoyed the fact that in so many of the clips from old TV shows and such where people are railing against the stupidity and irresponsibility of using marijuana, and the need to crack down on its users, both the host and the guest(s) are smoking.

Maybe the most bizarre clip to me is an anti-drug public service announcement from the ’60s with Sonny Bono. Bono looks and sounds absolutely stoned out of his mind. (It’s possible the filmmakers were manipulative enough to slow the clip down to create that illusion, though I hope not.) Bono makes the Joe Namath of the “I want to kiss you” sideline clip with Suzy Kolber look positively sober.

The film does an especially good job of highlighting the dishonesty and crass political demagoguery behind so much of the Drug War from the very beginning.

Watching this movie brought to mind a comment a friend of mine made many years ago. He said he was struck by how intense, how visceral, the hatred of drugs and drug users was from many people, including people in authority. “I think they were just so infuriated by everything the ’60s represented to them that they’ve never gotten over that. They want to crush everything they associate with that time.”

I think there’s a lot of truth to that. And it’s not just a generational thing; it’s not just people who were older in the ’60s and were threatened by the youth rebellion. You have to remember a huge number of young people back then wanted nothing to do with the stereotypical “’60s” stuff. They were at least as conservative as their elders. They wanted the world to remain how it was, where people like them could stick to the rules and the societal expectations that had seemingly always existed, and know they could reap the benefits of doing so, know that they’d be looked up to, they’d be the winners in life because they went in the military, remained strictly heterosexual in male-dominated relationships, worked their way up the corporate ladder, stayed away from drugs, kept their hair short and wore a tie, etc.

When they saw people doing otherwise and getting away with it, when they felt pressure from those around them to doubt all these things they had always taken for granted as proper and obligatory, they reacted with anger and defensiveness. They would prove the rightness of their path by seeing to it that all those degenerates did not in fact get away with it. They would make sure—and they and the people they influence have continued making sure for decades—that “those people” would suffer for being so “in your face” about drugs and opposing war and all the rest.

The “culture war” stuff operates on a deeply emotional level of rage toward “the other,” where “reasons”—like that marijuana causes cancer, or people who use marijuana tend to move on to harder drugs because of doing so, etc.—play only a small role, mostly one of rationalization.

Recreational drugs, homosexuality, feminism, uppity minorities, environmentalism, secularism, anti-war activism, Nader-style criticism of corporations and all that becomes an undifferentiated mass deserving only of hatred. It’s not even so much about the alleged substantive flaws in these things; it’s a visceral reaction against bitter enemies—hippies, tree huggers, “Al and Jesse,” fags, women who refuse to conform to traditional gender roles, etc.

Much of which attitudes, of course, are consciously created and manipulated by those who stand to benefit most from them economically and politically.

There is hope that the numbers of such people are thinning out gradually over time, and that things will therefore drift in a more progressive direction on drugs and many other matters soon enough. Maybe. But that may turn out to be one of those things that makes sense to predict—like the fading away of literalist religion, or a reaction against war made sense to predict for the 20th century—but doesn’t happen anyway.

While far from the most strident of documentaries, this is the kind of film that likely mostly preaches to the converted. People who already think the Drug War is disgraceful will have their opinions marginally bolstered, and will get some good laughs at the dopey (so to speak) folks on the other side in the bizarre old clips. But presumably almost everyone else will dismiss the film as biased, or more likely never watch it.

I don’t find it fully satisfactory by any means, because I recognize that advocacy documentaries, especially those that are fairly short, and especially those that try to keep things fast moving and entertaining, aren’t conducive to any kind of thorough, cogent argument for their position. So they really don’t deserve to persuade. That’s consistently a source of frustration for me as one who values critical thinking.

About the best you can expect is that they will provide some of the building blocks for such a cogent argument that you can then augment with other material to arrive at a justified position.

Relative to such expectations, I’d assess this documentary mostly favorably. It’s a solid effort.

I think purely on an entertainment level, the a/k/a Tommy Chong documentary held my interest a bit more, perhaps because it was personalized as the story of one individual’s misadventures in the Drug War. (On the other hand, I’d say I got into Grass more than I did Lockdown, USA.)

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