It’s easy to focus on the positives and tune out the negatives of cannabis legalization when, in more places than ever, you can walk into a storefront and conveniently purchase a pre-roll without fear of being arrested.
So, it makes sense that when brands like Ben and Jerry’s make statements about racial injustice or documentaries like Grass is Greener — appropriately released on 420 — make their way onto Netflix, they tend to disrupt the dominant narrative that everything is pretty much cool now.
This smart documentary, directed by the hip hop pioneer Fred Brathwaite who’s better known as Fab 5 Freddy, illuminates the deeply interwoven relationship between jazz, hip hop, reggae and cannabis. From Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong to Bob Marley and Peter Tosh to Snoop Dogg and Cypress Hill, viewers are given a chance to connect the dots between cannabis and black music across eras and genres. All the while, Brathwaite narrates through the history of the parallels between the music, the artists and the plant that all found themselves at odds the status quo of their time.
The documentary lends screen time to musicians, researchers, artists, policy-makers, activists and others to speak on what they’ve learned about cannabis and music, their hopes and fears for the burgeoning industry and how cannabis prohibition has affected them personally or the people in their lives. Brathwaite acts as interviewer and guide as he paints a picture of a global counterculture of black artists who exert major, inexorable influence on cannabis culture, both then and now.
This influence is plainly visible from a slang perspective: Words like weed, chronic and ganja all find their roots in this community.
But it does go deeper than that.
The impact and influence of the music are juxtaposed with the reality that — whether in the depths of New Orleans during the height of the jazz era or decades later in the Bronx during the dawn of hip hop — the government found a way to systematically punish being black through cannabis prohibition. For those who are not aware of how blatant racism (masked as cultural anxiety) fueled the War on Drugs, this documentary will help to shed some light on how the politicization of cannabis and its association with people of color (particularly black and Latin people) created a stigma that still remains to this day.
It could also help those unconcerned with a cannabis industry monopolized by rich, white brands understand why organizations that champion equity in the cannabis industry need to exist.
And for industry workers who turn a blind eye to the fact that people of color have been routinely sidelined from participating, this documentary could shed light on how their silence contributes to the problem. And it might just bring the casual user around to the idea that the local weed man on the so-called “black market” is just as much of an entrepreneur as the clean-cut guy tabling at the cannabis convention.
Some parts of the documentary are understandably heavy and heartbreaking, but this feels necessary rather than gratuitous. “Grass is Greener” speaks to a bigger need, beyond just discussion — it demonstrates that real action is essential to fix a history that has unapologetically criminalized a plant and a people under the guise of safety.
The truth is, none of the facts in the documentary are new information. But they are important, and they retain profound impact on how the legal cannabis system is functioning, yet still failing to support its most vulnerable participants. Because it unabashedly addresses a topic so many politicians, uneducated physicians and successful cannabis professionals and ignore with the finesse and ease of well-written track, it’s a gem worth watching and worthy of respect.
TELL US, have you watched “Grass is Greener” yet?