From nuns who grow to Fab 5 Freddy’s look into how American music was shaped by weed, there’s a story for everyone
By ASHLIE D. STEVENS for Salon.
When most people think of weed movies, films like “The Big Lebowski,” “Pineapple Express” and the “Harold and Kumar” franchise likely come to mind. But over the last several years, as marijuana legalization continues to spread across the country alongside decriminalization efforts, some fantastic documentaries have debuted that challenge the idea that weed entertainment is restricted to stoner comedies.
Don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot of fun to be had in the world of weed documentaries — there are gun-toting “nuns” who grow marijuana, letters that illuminate Louis Armstrong’s pot habit, and newsroom drama at the Denver Post, the first newspaper in the United States to have a “pot editor.”
But there’s also a lot to be learned, too. So, in observance of 4/20 (and really, any day you like to observe), here are our picks for the best weed documentaries for some, well, higher education.
“Grass is Greener,” Netflix
Fred Brathwaite — the former “Yo! MTV Raps” host who is probably better known as Fab 5 Freddy — opens this documentary by lighting up and musing to the camera, “I’m a longtime cannabis connoisseur and advocate.” Through his eyes, viewers take a journey through the history of the connection between music culture and marijuana in America, from Cab Calloway’s 1932 jazz hit “Reefer Man” to modern hip hop and rap.
“Grass is Greener” is packed with amazing lines from academics and music experts — like, “Louis [Armstrong] was one of our early, glorious potheads,” — as well as evidence of how musicians have long advocated for the legalization of marijuana. For example, Armstrong was once quoted as saying, “All I want is a permit to carry that good s**t.”
But inherent to the narrative is, of course, racism. With the help of musicians Killer Mike, Snoop Dog and B-Real, Freddy outlines the ways in which America’s insistence on cannabis prohibition was motivated by a fear of Blackness (or, as some white politicians coded it, “jazz culture”) and Mexican immigration.
“Grass is Greener” is a fascinating documentary that uses music history to tell an approachable story about America’s war on drugs, with a heady thread throughout of how weed has long served as a lightning rod for artistic creativity and political discourse.
“Breaking Habits,” Vudu
Alright, so as a documentary, “Breaking Habits” is not without its faults. The pacing is disjointed (pun not intended) and the editing choices are occasionally confusing. That said, the characters are absolutely wild. You thought Joe Exotic was bananas? Meet Sister Kate, a self-anointed nun who, after spending her life as a Reagan Republican, became a marijuana grower once her secretly polygamist husband conned her out of her life savings.
Sister Kate — who, in her previous life as a communications professional, was known as Christine Meeusen — started a new life in Merced, California with her three children after her marriage inevitably blew up. After some starts and stops in trying to get a medical marijuana business off the ground, Sister Kate found success once she donned a nun’s habit and had all the women she employed do the same. Despite having no ties to the Catholic Church, she dubbed the group the Sisters of the Valley and fashioned herself as an “anarchist, activist nun.”
She isn’t the only big character in “Breaking Habits.” There’s her son, a former methamphetamine addict who is currently on an all-you-can-smoke marijuana treatment program devised by the Sisters. There’s a staunchly anti-weed pastor who cautions parishioners that smoking could very well cost them their immortal souls, a message that is only reinforced by the local sheriff.
What “Breaking Habits” lacks in nuance, it makes up for in drama. Come for the weed puns, stay for the gunfight (!) that has the weed nuns grabbing their rifles.
“Murder Mountain,” Netflix
“Murder Mountain” is where true crime and the dark side of cannabis culture meet. Roughly 60% of America’s weed comes from Northern California’s Humboldt County — a place where more people go missing than anywhere else in the state. “Have You Seen Me?” and “Missing” posters are plastered all over the central town, Alderpoint, which is surrounded by dense forests and rocky peaks, an ideal terrain for “disappearing” people.
It’s prevalent enough that the slope on which Alderpoint sits is referred to as “Murder Mountain,” which is largely known as a hub for seasonal marijuana farm workers. In this six-episode docuseries director Joshua Zeman takes a deep dive into how precarious the transient environment is for so-called “trimmigrants,” like 29-year-old Garret Rodriguez, a surfer from San Diego who traveled north to participate in the green rush and earn money for a Mexico beach shack.
In 2013, Rodriguez stopped responding to calls from his father, who then reports his son missing. However, the sheriff’s department is overwhelmed with missing persons and murder cases, and Rodrguez’s disappearance goes unsolved as police allegedly dismiss him as a “loser” and “drug dealer.” One townsperson summed up the local government’s opinion on the local marijujana growers as such: “Let them kill each other.”
Part murder mystery, part indictment of how America’s law enforcement has adapted (or not) to marijuana legalization, “Murder Mountain” is worth the six-hour binge.
“Weed the People,” Netflix
A common thread in anti-drug PSAs and high school D.A.R.E presentation is the idea that marijuana is a “gateway drug.” In “Weed the People,” director Abby Epstein carefully dismantles that argument with the help of physicians and weed advocates and also turns her lens on how Big Pharma has allegedly pushed for marijuana prohibition for over 80 years.
She dives headfirst into the controversial world of parents seeking medical marijuana for their children with cancer and other serious illnesses because of its role as a muscle relaxant and ability to bolster appetite. As Bonni Goldstein, a pediatrician and medical marijuana treatment specialist, puts it, “To a family that’s suffering, it feels like a miracle. It’s really just science. It’s not fairy dust and it’s not voodoo. There are chemicals in the plant that work just like any other drug.”
“Weed the People” also spotlights studies that show how marijuana-derived cannabinoids have killed some cancer cells in test tubes. However, human trials largely aren’t on the table and as a result, science lags behind the copious anecdotal evidence of marijuana’s efficacy. As such, parents of terminally ill children who are desperately searching for some kind of hope are beginning to advocate for increased research and regulation for marijuana as a viable treatment.
This is an informative, bittersweet documentary that is deeply human.
“Rolling Papers,” Paid Video on Demand
As a journalist, “Rolling Papers” is one of my personal favorite documentaries on this list because it gives a super illuminating portrait of how the “Denver Post” had to adapt as a publication once marijuana became recreationally legalized in Colorado. Under “pot editor” Ricardo Baco, the paper has to navigate how to cover the topic in a way that will get people to take it seriously. In many ways, it’s like the early days of Big Food Media.
You’ve got your critics, like former “budtender” Jake Browne who casually remarks with the confidence of a sommelier that a certain strain has a “big nose of pine, a little bit of rubber and some lemon as well.” There are your columnists, like Brittany Driver, who writes about pot and parenting — a contentious topic that has her worried about increased scrutiny from Child Protective Services. There are investigative journalists, like Eric Gorski, who looks into how the lack of regulations behind edible potency can affect consumers.
The documentary — which was previously on Netflix and can now be rented for $1.99 on YouTube — has some occasional pacing lags, but it’s a fun newsroom documentary that deftly captures the enthusiasm for a new beat amid struggles for newspapers to stay in print.