Bad Seed takes a thoughtful look at Canada’s pot hang-ups
by Gregory Beatty
Probably the most famous film about marijuana is Reefer Madness. Financed by an American church group and released in 1936, it was meant to serve as a cautionary warning to parents about the danger marijuana posed to children.
Today, the campy film, with its ludicrous plot about teens who commit murder, rape and other mayhem while under the influence of pot, is a cult classic. Sadly, though, the propaganda message it conveys about cannabis still has currency.
Saskatoon filmmaker Shayne Metcalfe explores why that is in his feature-length documentary Bad Seed. The project, he recalls, originated in a series of instructional videos on cannabis cultivation that he did for Jason Hiltz of Jake’s Fertilizer in Saskatoon.
“I was reluctant at first,” Metcalfe says. “But he showed me his paperwork from Health Canada [authorizing him to grow and use medical marijuana]. Because most people who got their permit didn’t have the horticultural experience to grow their own medicine, what he did was set up a company that sold a simple package of plant food and instructions on how to grow it yourself.”
Through Hiltz, Metcalfe made contact with the medicinal marijuana movement in Vancouver, and attended an annual Toronto conference called Treating Yourself that attracts thousands of delegates.
“That was big eye-opener,” he says. “We have this picture of an unmotivated guy on a couch, eating pizza, playing video games, and smoking a bong. That not the type of people I met. It got me thinking why cannabis is illegal in the first place. I’m not Bill Clinton, I inhaled. I don’t smoke now, but I’ve tried it. It’s not crack cocaine. It’s a pretty soft substance.”
In researching his doc, Metcalfe interviewed people from all walks of life: lawyers, doctors, police, retired judges, marijuana activists and users. In examining the roots of marijuana prohibition, he says, “racism is one thing that came up. It seemed strange at first. But in the U.S. [marijuana was associated] with the Black and Mexican populations. In Canada it was the Chinese population.
“There were also media influences like William Randolph Hearst. I don’t know if he did it because he was evil, or he just wanted to sensationalize things to sell newspapers, but there were all these articles that came out during the reefer madness era.”
In Canada, Emily Murphy (writing under the pen name Janey Canuck for Maclean’s) scurrilously attacked cannabis as a threat to Anglo Saxon women. When it came to women’s rights and the Famous Five court case Murphy was on the right side of history. But with marijuana… not so much. “She painted a picture of all these women going to opium dens and smoking marijuana,” says Metcalfe.
Direct parallels exist between marijuana prohibition today and alcohol prohibition in the 1920s, Metcalfe says. In both instances, it led to a thriving black market that fueled organized crime and hurt otherwise law-abiding citizens.
As part of their tough on crime agendas, governments have spent billions on drug enforcement. That amounts to a lot of jobs, says Metcalfe. “One lawyer I spoke with said he benefits daily from tough marijuana laws because he defends people. Judges, police and prison officials also benefit. But does society benefit? That’s the big question.”
And it’s a question a lot of people are giving serious thought these days. In November 2012, Washington State and Colorado became the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Washington State is still dithering over its regulations, but in Colorado shops selling pot for recreational use opened Jan. 1. Alaska and Oregon are both holding recreational pot “reeferendums” in 2014.
In Canada, the Harper government (via the head honcho himself and Justice Minister Peter McKay) has floated the idea of police issuing tickets for illegal pot possession instead of formally charging people. In its 2010 omnibus crime bill, though, the Conservatives instituted mandatory jail sentences for anyone caught growing as little as six plants for non-medical purposes.
In this day and age, when recreational pot is legal in Colorado and Washington State, not to mention Uruguay, which passed a legalization law in December, that’s crazy!
“The decisions in Washington State and Colorado happened mid-way in shooting the documentary,” says Metcalfe. “I felt like I was on the right path. Then [Liberal leader] Justin Trudeau came out in favour of legalization. So I think prohibition is on its way out.
“it’s just a matter of time,” he says.