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  • Post Time Posted January 14, 2019
When I watched Grass, Toronto filmmaker Ron Mann’s documentary on cannabis which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1999, I began to get angrier and angrier. Even Woody Harrelson’s chill narration voice couldn’t soothe the frustration I was feeling.

What Grass expertly still does, two decades after its release, is spotlight the hypocrisy and closed-mindedness of the American political branches that wanted nothing more than to demonize cannabis and throw every advocate and user into jail. Such a blind view rippled to countries such as Canada, which moved to prohibit cannabis in 1923.

What’s remarkable about Grass is both how far we’ve come since those fear-mongering days of anti-drug czar Harry Anslinger and the ‘Just Say No’ campaigns…but also how far behind the U.S. has lagged, in comparison to many other countries, in nationally recognizing cannabis as a valued medicine.

Mann takes viewers on a tour through the changing attitudes toward cannabis, from the Reefer Madness hysteria of the 20s to Nixon’s harsh stance on prosecuting cannabis users to the free-love counter-culture of the late 60s and 70s. Threaded into each segment is the myopic view of a plant that is viewed as harmful as heroin and cocaine, despite commissioned findings to the contrary.


A shocking moment came when the film reveals how Nixon asked for scientists to undertake a lengthy review of cannabis’ effects and when the report revealed that very little harm came from using cannabis, Nixon was so enraged by the findings he ensured he snagged every copy of that report and trashed them. Ignoring those findings paved the way for another era of fueling the drug war with millions of dollars and establishing the Drug Enforcement Agency.

There’s a fantastic statement from former New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia when he spoke about cannabis, one that still resonates today: “Prohibition cannot be enforced for the simple reason that the majority of the American people do not want it enforced and are resisting its enforcement. That being so, the orderly thing to do under our form of government is to abolish a law that cannot be enforced, a law which the people of the country do not want enforced.”

Quotes like that gem break up the otherwise depressing film about ignorant views of what cannabis does to the American people (and analogously, the world). Grass reinforces what many cannabis researchers already know as a painful catch-22: It's long been arduous to conduct thorough studies on the medical uses of cannabis because of its prohibition on a federal level. Such research requires approval from a federal government that hasn't been very keen on studying the plant’s potential benefits and continues to make it difficult to conduct cannabis research. So the feds demand scientific research proving cannabis has medical value, but the federal government's restrictions make it difficult to conduct that research.

What Grass was missing, though, was a segment or two on the health benefits of medical cannabis. Those studies, often from other countries, were starting to make noise in the 1990s. Of course, more data and evidence eked out in the 2000s, but Mann could have reported on the preliminary findings related to cannabis usage easing chronic pain and symptoms of MS, or how India and China had long been using cannabis as helpful tinctures to assist a variety of ailments.

Grass could have also added more context to America’s draconian stance on cannabis by exploring how other countries approached the issue. For example, Uruguay has never criminalized personal possession of drugs, and in 1974 the country allowed judges to determine whether a case of possession was personal or commercial.

This doc acts as a time capsule to capture the moral outrage many American politicians felt about cannabis’s popularity, despite its acceptance among both young and old Americans. You can pinpoint the steps anti-drug enforcers took to invent lies and half-truths about the consequences of using cannabis, and the film truly makes you wonder how the worldview on the plant may have shifted if such misinformation had never spewed into the air in the first place.

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