Roll 'Em

U Film Society, Bell Auditorium
Fridays and Saturdays at 11 p.m.
through December 6

A FEW DAYS ago I picked up my local paper, the Marin Independent Journal, and a banner headline announced that California's controversial Proposition 215 had spared one of my San Anselmo neighbors from a felony marijuana-growing charge. The initiative, passed by voters last year, allows for the use and cultivation of marijuana for medical purposes. So after the fuzz busted 26-year-old Kimberly Marr last month and confiscated 14 carefully tended plants from her apartment, she arrived in court with a doctor's note recommending herb to combat her debilitating and frequent migraines. The case, righteously if miraculously, was dismissed. In Minnesota, current state law would likely have plunked Kimberly Marr in jail, at taxpayers' expense, for an extended stay.

It's this sort of subtext that gives Doug Wolens's very indie Weed its kick. Shot on Hi-8 (don't start) and edited on the auteur's home PC, it's a humble, fuzzy little documentary set at the 8th Annual Cannabis Cup Awards in Amsterdam. For those who aren't regular High Times readers, the Cannabis Cup is an herbal take on the wine-tasting competition, aiming to select and commend the highest grades of pot and hashish from among dozens of high-tech varietals. Not surprisingly, the event attracts thousands of would-be judges every year (many, if not most, are from the U.S.) for a week of serious dope smoking. And as one might imagine, the evaluation process is tough work. Says one frustrated critic: "I mean, come on. We're sitting here, like, totally stoned. How are we going to judge anything?"

The event also has political pretensions. The hemp legalization movement, promoting a very worthy environmental and agri-business cause, is represented by some reasonably articulate merchants who note the many uses for the hemp plant (of which marijuana is just one by-product). It's the same unassailable argument: Cannabis is an indomitable weed and a cinch to grow; its hearty stalk makes stronger cloth than cotton and better paper than wood pulp with no need for polluting fertilizers or processing chemicals; its seeds and oil are highly nutritious and can be made into all sorts of nifty veggie foodstuffs; and it's legal to grow for hemp fiber in many countries, including Canada, England, and China. There are also plenty of calls to legalize cannabis for adult recreational use, too, and commute the sentences of those serving time solely for marijuana-related offenses. But the case for medical marijuana--which was not as big an issue two years ago when this film was shot--gets mostly ignored.

Unfortunately, it's tough to make a sober political argument through a haze of Indica smoke. Come on, gang: You can bet the alcohol lobby doesn't do jello-shots before petitioning the Senate, and those tobacco boys didn't light up until the C-Span cameras stopped rolling. But Weed seems less concerned with making activists look good than with simply documenting a subculture in full gear. So you get a lot of genial stoners comparing their favorite "coffee shops" (the cafes that legally sell weed and hashish), their favorite hybrids ("Bubblegum" and "White Widow" were the leaders), and their favorite smoking modalities (such as the highly touted vaporizer bongs--"My husband's got asthma, so it works really good for him!"). You also get shown some really fine-looking buds, though the lo-res video rarely does them justice. This is where some of that rich Nature Channel 16mm macro photography would have made all the difference.

But reefer narratives are still a pretty tough sell these days, I suppose, what with the continuing chill of draconian Reagan-Bush policymaking and Clinton's punk-ass "I didn't inhale" sidestepping. No one with serious capital and credibility seems willing to get into the pro-legalization fray, and so we're left with scrappy if spirited films like Weed, which make do with cable-access production values, and spokesmen like the raving Jack Herer, who naturally gets some screen time here. Herer is author of the admirable if impossibly sloppy The Emperor Wears No Clothes, a self-published compendium of marijuana history and research that could benefit immensely from some basic copy editing, let alone MLA-formatting software. He deserves his props, but like most of the spokespersons in Weed, you wouldn't want him representing you in court on a possession charge.

Now think about it: It's a fair bet that most of this paper's readership has smoked pot at some point in their lives. I'd guess most of the CP staff has or does (and you know that Strib staff has gotta be puffin' something). This writer, as you might have gleaned, has enjoyed a fatty from time to time, and so too have many of our lawmakers, police officers, educators, doctors, and clergy. Considering the tens of thousands of Americans serving jail time solely for possession, sale, and/or cultivation of marijuana, it's kinda like There But For The Grace Of God, no? Watching Weed--filmed in a modern European city that discovered controlled legalization had actually made a slight decrease in marijuana use--you're forced to wonder what all the fuss is about. As one impassioned gentleman testifies: "I'm in heaven, because I'm walking around with a pound of marijuana, and I don't feel like I'm a wanted man."

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