Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Review: "Grass is Greener" from Netflix

The Netflix marijuana documentary “Grass is Greener” is a milestone in the form, told from the perspective of the African-American community that has been so hard hit by the War on Drugs.

Directed and narrated by Frederick Brathwaite, better known as “Fab 5 Freddie” who DJed a hip hop show on MTV, the film features interviews with Snoop Dog, Damian Marley, B Real, Killer Mike, and others, as well as women like Reggae artist Jah 9.

With awesome graphics, music, and archival materials throughout, it starts with the history of cannabis use and prohibition in the US, interviewing pioneer authors Larry "Ratso" Sloman and Steve Hagar, along with Criminal Justice Professor Baz Dreisinger.

The connection between marijuana and music is made right away, starting in New Orleans with the story of Louis Armstrong, and interviewing old-time musicians who have used cannabis for 60 or 70 years. Mezz Mezzrow, the Jewish jazz clarinetist who supplied Harlem with "reefers" back in the day is compared to the modern Mezz, a dealer named Branson who has been extolled in dozens of rap songs.

Everything from the 1944 Laguardia Report, to Nixon's burying of the 1972 Shafer Commission report and subsequent racist comments made by him and his aide John Ehrlichman, and Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign to the rise of pro-legalization Reggae artists Bob Marley and Peter Tosh are given their due.

These are familiar themes, but where "Grass is Greener" departs and breaks ground is where it goes from there, starting with examples of Hip Hop songs that warned against hard drug use, and Snoop's admission that, as a cocaine dealer, he grew distressed at watching the damage that drug caused. Weed, however,  was "fly" and he made it his mission to turn the world onto the better drug. Soon Cypress Hill was smoking weed on SNL, Dr. Dre released his CD "The Chronic," and there was no putting the ganja genie back in the bottle.

The story then shifts back to New Orleans and the plight of Bernard Noble, a black man who was given a 13-year jail sentence for a single joint, due to the draconian mandatory minimum sentencing laws in New Orleans. An interview with Noble's mother and sisters highlighted the tremendous effect such sentences have on a prisoner's family.

Two powerful female activists from the Drug Policy Alliance, Asha Bandale and Kassandra Frederique, are featured, and each makes a strong case for reparations for the black community as we move into legalization. "Yes, I did say reparations," Bandale emphasized, after telling the story of her teenaged stepson who was imprisoned and ultimately shot and killed in a downward spiral that started with a simple marijuana possession charge.

A particularly poignant segment covers Trayvon Martin and other black men (and one woman, Sandra Bland) whose deaths were justified in the media by the fact that they had marijuana in their systems. It drove home the point that juries still believe the old "Reefer Madness" lies about marijuana making people of color crazed criminals, while the soundtrack, a cover of Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," underscored the racist nature of the deaths.

The film wraps up with an overview of mainstream mentions of marijuana these days, including those from Martha Stewart, Miley Cyrus and Brandy Clark, before getting into the difficulties minority-owned businesses are having participating in the newly legalized cannabis industry. One white cannabis conference promoter even opined that minority owners and "potheads" would be "bad businessmen."

The effect of equity programs established to assist business owners from communities impacted by the drug war in California, Illinois and other states remain to be seen. One pending federal legalization bill, the MORE Act, comes with equity provisions.

Meanwhile, the racial disparities in marijuana arrests continues nationwide, and a disproportionate number of people of color are still doing time for pot charges. One example is Michael Thompson, a black man serving a life sentence in Michigan for dealing pot, something that's been deemed an "essential" business in many states during this COVID pandemic. Help Free Michael Thompson.

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