I have a thing about most documentaries; it’s not unlike the thing I have about Brussels sprouts: I never want to watch/eat them, then I’m always glad I did. Happens. Every. Time. And the idea that I had to sit through a documentary that’s already nearly three years old, well, let’s just say my enthusiasm meter wasn’t exactly jumping with mind-blowing excitement.
Grass Is Greener ostensibly follows hip-hop icon Fab Five Freddy on his often-disturbing trek to uncover the truth about the history of cannabis prohibition in the US. Commencing in the 1920s New Orleans jazz clubs where Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington were forced to perpetually fend off being arrested due to overtly racist policies, the documentary concludes by interviewing rap legends Snoop Dogg and B-Real of Cypress Hill as they expertly discuss the current state of cannabis.
The film, streaming on Netflix, also provides perspectives from relevant lawyers, cannabis advocates and activists. By far the most harrowing are examples of families torn apart by America’s pervasive and unjustified obsession with convicting people of color for minor marijuana infractions. It’s a lot to take in.
The riveting examination provides us with a villain early on, the cartoonishly bigoted first director of the Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger. The political appointee enforced fabricated policies while ignoring definitive scientific studies specifically targeting two groups still grappling (and demanding) social justice in this nation: African Americans and Mexican immigrants. In fact, the very name “cannabis” was purposedly changed to “marijuana” to further connect the supposedly dangerous narcotic more directly with the feared Mexicans crossing the border. It’s all as infuriating as it is outrageous, but given the current societal climate in the US, not at all surprising. C’mon now, is Harry Anslinger all that different from, say, Jeff Sessions, the enforcer of the draconian child separation policy at the US border during the previous administration? Here’s a hint: He’s not.
But wait! There are good guys, too. Most surprising, perhaps, was former New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who commissioned a report on cannabis that refuted all of Anslinger’s preposterous claims. “Instead of science, the government knowingly and willingly chose propaganda, chose racism over and over again,” said one astute subject of the documentary about the irrefutable evidence found in LaGuardia’s report. But the direct line from Anslinger, to Richard Nixon’s War On Drugs, to Ronald (and Nancy) Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign and to Bill Clinton’s odious Crime Bill all relegated cannabis to be perceived as nothing short of premeditated evil. And it was all a lie.
I was amped up for action by the time Grass Is Greener gets to Jack Herer’s revelatory The Emperor Wears No Clothes, the truth bomb of a book that blew the lid off the perpetuated untruths about weed the US government had been spewing for a century. And by the end of the doc, I’m left with not only a crystal-clear understanding of the history of cannabis, but an even better understanding about American jurisprudence and how acutely unjust it has always been. Always.
Grass Is Greener should be required viewing for cannabis lovers, yes, but also for lovers of our country and democracy and justice. I’m so glad I saw this remarkably important documentary. Not surprisingly, I’m now craving a heaping serving of Brussels sprouts. I got the do-something munchies for sure.
This story was originally published in the print edition of Cannabis Now.