Code of the West, Directed by Rebecca Richman Cohen
What place does a Harvard-educated woman have documenting the Montana legislative process as it debated the medical marijuana issue? The same place the same woman had in documenting a war crimes trial in Sierra Leone, the place of an independent film-maker, interested in telling a well-balanced, honest story about how people and laws collide, while trying to balance the line between advocacy and objective (film) journalism.
Miles from the East Coast and Sierra Leone in time, culture and context, Montana is a state struggling to maintain its own identity, but technology, the media and controversial issues have presented a contemporary conflict with long engrained Western values and sentiment. Rebecca Richman Cohen is the woman, medical cannabis is the issue and documentary film is the medium. This collision resulted in production of the film The Code of The West, which addresses a variety of intertwined issues including medical cannabis, state’s rights, federal constitutional rights, personal liberties, free-market enterprise, social change, legislative gridlock and ideological conflict. Controversy is the foundation of this film, and cannabis is the stimulant.
Although the issues are paramount in the film, it is people’s lives that demand attention. For some, medical marijuana is an acceptable alternative to expensive pharmaceuticals with unacceptable side-effects. For others, medical marijuana means employment in a time of stressed economic conditions. For still others, medical marijuana is a social scourge, a blight on Western tradition, and a gateway drug made more readily available to their children. For these people, for the real life characters of The Code of The West, the issue and the plant, has a dramatic effect on their lives, and it is this drama that creates a real tension that Cohen, the filmmaker, believes makes for good documentary film. And she’s right.
Watching the film, you cannot help but get sucked into these people’s lives and wonder what is going to happen to them, depending on where the issue of medical marijuana goes and how it is settled legally in the State of Montana and elsewhere. This is the empathy a watcher has for people they wouldn’t normally care about, that Rebecca Richman Cohen likes to create as a hallmark for a successful documentary film.
What does happen is that right-wing conservative Republican legislators and some of their more vocal constituents get their way by neglecting to recognize that the majority of people believe regulation of medical cannabis is not only appropriate, but possible. What one observes and learns from the film is that there are people in high places who do not care if you have to go without cannabis as an alternative drug, do not care if you have to pay high prices for dangerous pharmaceuticals, do not care what you have invested, do not care that you are unemployed, do not care that your personal rights are offended, and especially do not care what the facts are. But they do care what it looks like, and that is what this is all about, what it looks like to others, what the image of a pot-smoking society is.
The Code of The West shows what pot smokers in Montana look like. It is an honest look, but it is not a flattering look to someone watching from the outside. The look is something akin to profiling. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, profiling is defined as, “the use of specific characteristics, as race or age, to make generalizations about a person, as to whether he or she may be engaged in illegal activity.” Long hair, beards, tattoos, screaming hippie chicks, greenhouse workers, people sitting around a table smoking a joint, all these are images portrayed honestly enough, and although disease or chronic pain cannot clearly be viewed from the outside, these are not necessarily images of sick people, broken or dying of a disease or suffering the ravages of cancer or MS.
Although images of suffering patients do come through in the film, it is obvious the images and realities of who are legitimate medical cannabis patients and not just recreational users do not get through to the Montana legislature or to those calling for repeal of medical cannabis legislation. State statistics bear out that less than 10% of the registered patients indeed suffered severe illness like MS, Cancer, Glaucoma or Chronic Wasting Disease. The vast majority of registered patients suffer “chronic pain,” which as nondescript as it may be from recreational users, does not carry any weight with the opposition.
What is evident from the film is who and what the opposition to medical cannabis is against, that fundamentally being the image of a pot-smoking society. So too is the face of the opposition (in Montana) evident in law enforcement, conservative Republican legislators, and mothers fearing for their children’s souls in the face of the devil. What the film accomplishes is bringing the faces of the different sides of the issue to the forefront for the viewing public. What is not evident in the film is the money backing the lobbying force behind the opposition to medical cannabis, even though we all know it is there.
For many this might have completed the behind-the-scenes story behind legislative motives, maneuvering and deal-making. This kind of in-depth understanding of the money behind opposition to medical cannabis or legalization, not only in Montana, but at the national level, is what is needed to truly unravel the complexities of the issue and move it forward to an acceptable compromise. Then too, that would mean the whole debate might require a shift to looking at the facts.
But despite this oversight, The Code of the West succeeds. With the close eye of a filmmaker, Rebecca Richman Cohen is able to observe the disconnect between the use of reliable facts and what was driving decisions. “We saw that the legislative process here in Montana is divided ideologically – instead of making decisions based on facts and common sense,” she said, adding that, “the issue is driven by fear on all sides. The overriding theme is fear.” When watching Cherrie Brady appeal to an audience’s emotions, her resemblance to Sarah Palin and her use of right-wing rhetoric helps one grasp the effectiveness of using fear to sway votes.
Ultimately, The Code of the West evokes the same nostalgia for the past which has impeded progress in Montana as in so many other states, a false safety blanket for social conservatives trying to make something that had recently become very visible, invisible once again. As Republican Speaker of the House Milborne gloats over his party legislative victory over medical cannabis, he notes that the idea was to “change the culture of Montana back to where we would like to see it.” For now, usage is swept under the rug once again, and as one patient concludes, “They just created 27,000 outlaws.”
Written by Richard Ladzinski for Issue 4 of Cannabis Now Magazine.
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