Film producer Adam Scorgie used to be against marijuana, and as a kid growing up in Canada he tended to believe governmental warnings that cannabis was dangerous. That’s part of the reason he initially decided to make the documentary The Union: The Business Behind Getting High in 2007—to prove to his friends that weed wasn’t good for you.
But he soon found he was wrong about pot, and that pro-marijuana film garnered mostly favorable reviews. It also received so much feedback and support that Scorgie and his team started a Kickstarter campaign to fund another film digging deeper into the debate about marijuana legalization. Fans answered, with nearly 3,500 backers putting up a total of $240,000.
Four years after Scorgie and his team began, they screened their finished documentary The Culture High in Reykjavik, Iceland (the first screening outside of Canada) to a sold-out audience, with many laughs and more than a few teary eyes.
The film, which opens in New York on October 3 at the IFC Film Center and at limited theaters nationally October 17, recounts the history of marijuana criminalization, from its technical beginnings in 1937 to the moment it kicked into high gear in 1971, when President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs.” It shows how this “war” has led to the imprisonment of millions on minor marijuana charges, with a disproportionate number of African-Americans among the criminally charged.
As the film points out, research has shown that marijuana doesn’t cause lung cancer (meanwhile, more than 5 million die from tobacco products each year worldwide), and it can help treat a number of ailments from chronic pain to nausea to epilepsy.
The most heart-wrenching moment of the film concerns California resident Jason David, whose son Jayden began suffering seizures at 6 months of age, sometimes hundreds per day. He was put on five different medications and showed little improvement. Exasperated and virtually bankrupt, David tried a cannabis extract high in cannabidiol, which a 2013 study published in Epilepsy Behavior and others suggest could help treat these seizures. For the first time ever, Jayden had a day without any convulsions and has gotten dramatically better.
This and other elements remind the viewer that the marijuana debate is not just academic, and shows how criminalization really does hurt many.
Marijuana remains a Schedule 1 substance, without any “currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse”—even though most Americans are against the criminalization of the drug and scientific evidence overwhelmingly shows it has medical benefits. Overdoses from benzodiazepines like Xanax and Valium killed 6,872 people in 2011 in the United States alone, but these drugs are listed as Schedule IV substance, three classes “less dangerous” than marijuana, which you cannot overdose on.
In other words, up is down, and black is white.
The Culture High makes a convincing argument that certain interests stand to gain from the continued war on marijuana, like pharmaceutical companies, private prisons and the police, who get much of their funding from asset seizures stemming from weed arrests.
Marijuana is “the most nontoxic medicine I have ever come across,” says Harvard researcher Dr. Lester Grinspoon in the film. “Once it comes off [prohibition], it’ll become much less expensive than the pharmaceutical products [that] it will replace.”
And private prisons—which “are scary as all shit [because] they make it profitable to incarcerate people,” says writer Howard Bloom in the documentary—stand to gain from the steady stream of prisoners marijuana laws generate.
The documentary interviews an enormous variety of people, from researchers to physicians to people in law enforcement, and even Richard Branson and Snoop Dogg (to great comedic effect).
The film occasionally relies too much on non-scientific experts like comedian Joe Rogan (although he is incredibly well-spoken and knowledgeable) and would have benefited by including people on the other end of political spectrum. Then again, it leaves no doubt that American drug laws are badly broken, most of all with marijuana.
“Empathy is all it really takes to open up the avenues of outrage and realize how appalling this is,” says Bloom, about marijuana laws and their toll. The Culture High provides that compassion—and the fury that follows.