Friday June 16, 2000
Weed, blow, Mary Jane, reefer, muggles, pot, tea. Marijuana is a drug that travels under numerous aliases--nicknames that indicate how pervasive it's been in American popular culture. When director Ron Mann chose "Grass" as the title for his excellent documentary on the evil weed, he probably didn't worry that anyone would be expecting a treatise on disease-resistant Bermuda strains.
Written by Solomon Vesta and aided by jazzy and informative graphics by cartoonist Paul Mavrides, "Grass" is told with a sense of humor: "No hippies," the final credits read, "were harmed in the making of this movie." But, confounding expectations, it's definitely not the goofy celebration of the glories of smoke you might expect with pro-hemp firebrand Woody Harrelson reading the narration.
Rather, this turns out to be an informative, involving, even sobering advocacy film that not only argues that society's total war against this drug has been misguided and ruinously expensive, but also seeks to demonstrate how easily public opinion can be manipulated by tireless zealots hoping for overreactions based on misleading information. "Grass" shows how marijuana has been an ever-pliant boogeyman for several generations of alarmists, willing to take the rap for any and all difficulties caused by other forces in society.
Mann, whose fine docs include "Comic Book Confidential" and the rock-themed "Twist," has scoured numerous archives and come up with all manner of visual surprises, starting with a clip from a 1953 anti-drug educational film called "Marijuana: Threat or Menace," which has the narrator all but screaming at the audience, "Don't do it!"
Also visible are Sonny Bono's anti-drug message, soldiers in Vietnam using the barrel of a weapon to smoke the stuff and Cab Calloway and his orchestra singing "That Reefer Man" from 1933's "International House." Marijuana-related music plays a large part in the soundtrack, with tracks like "One Toke Over the Line" and Peter Tosh's "Legalize It (Don't Criticize It)."
Mann and writer Vesta have roughly structured "Grass" around an ever-changing series of official truths regarding the putative horrors caused by the drug. The first, coinciding with marijuana's appearance in the U.S. in the early 20th century (brought in by Mexican laborers) was "If you smoke it, you will kill people."
"Alien Weed Makes Men Into Killers" read a headline in the El Paso Times, and a 1920s silent film called "High on the Range" showed an innocent cowboy turning into a homicidal maniac after just one puff of what the intertitle ominously calls "a new kind of cigarette."
If there is a villain in "Grass," it is Harry J. Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a man who wanted to be toward drugs what J. Edgar Hoover was toward crime. Hoping to persuade states to adopt uniform anti-marijuana laws, Anslinger helped promulgate official truth No. 2, visible in exploitation films like "The Burning Question" (later renamed "Reefer Madness"): "If you smoke it, you will go insane."
Adroit at publicity management, Anslinger also successfully buried more reasoned approaches to the drug, such as 1944's La Guardia Committee Report, commissioned by the mayor of New York and reporting that "the sociological, psychological, and medical ills commonly attributed to marijuana have been found to be exaggerated."
As the times changed, the enemies of the drug were ready with new dictums, even insisting that Red China was upping production in "a Communist plot to dope up America." Successive official truths, as detailed by on-screen graphics, included "If you smoke it, you will become a heroin addict," "If you smoke it, you will become an unmotivated, dysfunctional loser," and the especially devious "If you smoke it, bad things will happen but we don't know what they are."
While, like any narcotic, marijuana has its dangers, "Grass" posits that treating it as, in President Reagan's words, "the most dangerous drug in America" has proved to be a counterproductive--not to mention extremely costly--proposition. By intensely criminalizing the substance, by pushing for laws mandating harsh minimum sentences, the anti-marijuana forces have helped create a multibillion-dollar, not terribly effective, war on drugs and a society that puts more people behind bars than almost any on Earth. Where there's smoke, there's not necessarily fire.
Grass, 2000. R, for drug content. Released by Unapix Films. Director Ron Mann. Producer Ron Mann. Narrator Woody Harrelson. Screenplay Solomon Vesta. Editor Robert Kennedy. Music Guido Luciani. Sound design Rosnick Mackinnon. Art director Paul Mavrides. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes. ..CP as . PHOTO as Richard Lynch, left, and Mario Lopez in director Lorena.