From weed, pot, grass and dope, marijuana is a drug with many names. But no matter what it’s called, it has a much more complicated history in the United States than one might realize. This history is explored in “Grass is Greener,” a Netflix documentary that was released on April 20.
Directed by Fab 5 Freddy, a filmmaker, musician and former MTV host, “Grass is Greener” demonstrates how marijuana is historically tied to music, race and politics in the United States, facing many obstacles on the path to legalization.
Starting with jazz in the early 1900s, the documentary shows how marijuana influenced the music industry over multiple eras. From reggae to hip-hop, it has been used as an artistic catalyst for musicians as well as a prominent subject in their music. Examples of marijuana-inspired songs over the past century are played in the film, such as “The Next Episode” and “Reefer Song.” These are backed up with interviews from musicians and marijuana advocates such as Snoop Dogg and Damian Marley, the youngest son of reggae icon Bob Marley.
The music portions of the documentary are quite enjoyable to watch, as they are both entertaining and informative. They are candid looks at the connection between marijuana and the music industry, and marijuana’s subsequent integration into popular culture.
It also tackles the problematic politics of weed, as it has been a hot-button issue for many American politicians for decades. The documentary claims that marijuana didn’t become a problem in the U.S. until minorities became associated with it. As the population of urban America shifted, with minorities moving en masse to northern cities, people became scared about the change that shift might bring.
The film asserts that this xenophobia sparked the war on drugs in America, with marijuana front and center in the government’s anti-drug efforts. The documentary cites Henry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the U.S Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, as the leader of the war on marijuana. He led the charge in creating propaganda films and articles that painted the drug as a dangerously mind-altering narcotic that can drive people mad.
This is a narrative thread that is found throughout the entire film, which focuses heavily on the government's use of propaganda to prevent the legalization of marijuana, specifically in the Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan administrations. In all of these highlighted eras, anti-marijuana propaganda was promoted by the United States government despite multiple government-funded research reports contradicting the government’s claims about how marijuana made people aggressive and potentially dangerous.
It was fascinating to learn about how these anti-marijuana efforts were often racially fueled, as the documentary claims the war on marijuana was less about the negative effects of the drug and more about suppressing minorities in America. Toward the end of the film, when it highlights the recent legalization of marijuana on the state level, it talks about the hypocrisy of the bandwagon mentality of the burgeoning weed industry. While mostly Caucasian, upper-middle class individuals are making millions selling marijuana and its related products, hundreds of thousands of African Americans and Latinos are serving long sentences for marijuana charges.
The documentary is certainly well-researched and supported, with marijuana entrepreneurs, journalists and medical researchers all giving their thoughts on the drug’s cultural and physiological impact. But it definitely takes a hard stance on the marijuana debate, making it clear right away that this is a pro-legalization film made by and featuring people who believe marijuana should be legal.
While it would have been more narratively effective if the documentary presented the other sides of the legalization argument, that doesn’t necessarily take away from the credibility of its message or its entertainment value. It’s an artistically vibrant, eye-opening film that makes for an interesting watch for those who want to know more about the notorious plant.