Monday, September 17, 2007

BFF: The Union: The Business Behind Getting High

So... If most of the people coming to see movies at this festival are those with a personal interest in the subject matter, who makes up the audience for this?
The Union: The Business Behind Getting High

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 September 2007 at AMC Boston Common #17 (Boston Film Festival 2007)

At some point, Brett Harvey and Adam Scorgie should probably have changed the name of their documentary on the underground marijuana industry; the Union of the title isn't mentioned until at least halfway through. "The Union: The Business Behind Getting High" sounds like an exposé, but this documentary is more a piece of advocacy.

The film is arguing for the legalization of marijuana. It is, the film argues, at worst harmless, especially relative to alcohol and tobacco, and at best of great medicinal value. Hemp, a related species of plant also banned in the U.S., is fantastic for manufacturing paper and textiles. It's a useful plant for biodiesel manufacturing. And much like America's Prohibition on alcohol, prohibition of cannabis arguably creates the violent crime that it was allegedly meant to fight - that the only people it benefits are criminals and those who make money from law enforcement and incarceration.

The segment on "The Union" - a catch-all title for the string of people who make up the marijuana supply chain - is, to my mind, the most informative part of the movie. Harvey and Scorgie trace both the money and the actual product, from homeowner to contractor to fall guy to border jumper, showing how a product that is cultivated without a great deal of difficulty can be a seven billion dollar per year agricultural industry for British Columbia, driving a great deal of other business as well. The numbers are eyebrow-raising - one "grow op" (a private home where cannabis is cultivated out of sight) with just eight sun lamps can produce six crops a year, with each crop going for twenty thousand dollars. We also see the remains of a larger operation housed in twenty buried railroad cars that must have been worth millions, and that's before it has traveled south and east through the U.S., where it can wind up going for thousands of dollars per pound. If you respond to hard numbers as well as I do, it's a fascinating little economics lesson.

(It also gets a body thinking about how that unused basement is not helping with paying back the college loans, doesn't it?)

There aren't quite so many hard numbers in the rest of the movie, but there are a whole bunch of expert witnesses - the film's website lists over thirty interview subjects, of varying degrees of credibility. People with a law enforcement background like former Seattle chief of police Norm Stamper and former undercover agent Jack Cole give compelling testimony of how the only violent crime related to marijuana comes from how criminalization puts the distribution into the hands of criminals, but an actor like Joe Rogan, while an entertaining interview, doesn't really add much in the way of authority to the discussion. Some may fault the filmmakers for apparently not seeking out people to present an alternate view - the only bits supporting the War On Drugs are clips of Republic Presidents, and they're facile comments clearly meant to be mocked rather than actual arguments. The closest thing you'll see to a rebuttal is allowing the occasional interview subject to be so worked up as to undermine his or her credibility.

The style of the film is fairly fast-paced, with Adam Scorgie acting as a Michael Moore-style "host", though a much less obtrusive one. He and Harvey use a lot of stock material, and while their documentary and interview footage is fairly clear (although with as many interview subjects as they use, I might like it if subjects were constantly identified), but when they go to stock footage - including that old standby, silly-looking thirty-five year-old educational films - they get a little cut-happy. I do like the way they cite webpages in the end credits to make it easy for audience members who have had their curiosity piqued to refer directly to primary sources.

One subject the film is oddly silent is why marijuana sells beyond medicinal uses (although they'll use former "High Times" editors as interviewees). It's probably a deliberate choice, to prevent accusations of promoting that a certain lifestyle. Leaving the whole "getting high" aspect out means that the movie is obviously avoiding something, even if it isn't really the point of the production.

Is the argument convincing? Well, I'm pretty libertarian by nature anyway (I've also got no horse in this fight; I've never touched the stuff and don't intend to). Maybe it will nudge some people with no opinion a little nudge. Probably not enough to accomplish its goal any time soon. But getting people thinking about change isn't a bad thing.

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