The 2019 documentary Grass is Greener is again available on Netflix in the UK. Unlike other cannabis documentaries, the film is not simply a pro-legalisation argument. Grass is Greener asks for the recognition of black music artists in aiding the cultural shift in attitudes around marijuana in America. It simultaneously addresses why people of colour are disproportionately targeted and incarcerated for cannabis-related crimes.
Many documentaries about marijuana fail to acknowledge the impact musicians, in particular black musicians, had on bringing cannabis into the mainstream. Directed and narrated by rap legend Fred Brathwaite – known as Fab 5 Freddy – Grass is Greener takes us through the timeline of cannabis and music in America, and the political unrest that has occurred as a result.
The documentary begins in the 1920s and spans to the present day, with the initial emergence of cannabis culture coming from the Harlem jazz scene. Musicians such as Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong were known advocates; Calloway’s song ‘Reefer Man’ (1933) was one of the first examples of cannabis being referenced in music, something the documentary shows has continued throughout time. It goes through the musical timeline that eventually led to the cultural shift in attitudes; from jazz, to the emergence of reggae in the 70s, to 80s hip-hop onwards. We hear from a slew of musical legends and cannabis activists alike, including Damien Marley, Cypress Hill member B-Real and Snoop Dogg, who talk about the influence of cannabis on their creativity, their first smoking experiences, and the seminal music that has inspired them. We also hear from experts and scholars who corroborate their claims with science and statistics (for any sceptics out there!)
Alongside the musical timeline we are informed of the growing tensions that resulted in the total prohibition of cannabis in America by 1937. The documentary investigates how early reports of smoking were quickly associated with Mexicans and African Americans, with even the term ‘marijuana’ being created and used as a tool to evoke ‘ethnic’ connotations. The documentary reveals the insidious pedalling of anti-cannabis propaganda incited by Harry Anslinger and continued by Richard Nixon, and we see footage of the notoriously inaccurate anti-weed campaign films. During the Nixon administration cannabis became a Schedule 1 narcotic in the US, despite the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse calling for its decriminalisation in 1972.
The documentary delves into the Nixon tapes, revealing the truth behind the demonisation of the drug, with one of his advisors stating: ‘we couldn’t make it illegal to either be against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalising both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.’ The documentary looks at how these laws are still in action today, with statistics revealing that in 2017, 46.6% of people arrested for cannabis law violations in the U.S were black or Latino. It is important to mention that these racial disparities are not exclusive to the American experience either. Whilst watching the documentary it is all too easy to see the parallels between U.S and U.K institutions and their handling of cannabis related ‘crime’. Statistics from the Home Office in the U.K found that men aged 15-24 from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups accounted for 32% of all Stop and Searches in the year ending March 2021, despite making up only 2.6% of the population. Furthermore, The Independent found that black people are 12 times more likely to be prosecuted for cannabis possession than white people, often for tiny amounts. It is clear to see that British institutions like the Metropolitan Police are just as institutionally racist in their drug policies as the U.S.
Those featured in the documentary go on to talk about their own personal experiences with the law, including the late NBA player-turned-cannabis-entrepreneur Cliff Robinson and Kareem ‘Biggs’ Burke, co-founder of Roc-A-Fella Records. Burke talks about how his previous drug charge means he cannot partake in any cannabis activity, in fear of facing a 25-year sentence if caught. The multiple bill statute in Louisiana is one of the strictest laws around cannabis in America, meaning that multiple offenders can receive staggeringly long sentences.
Tonally, the documentary finds a perfect balance. It displays the rich history of cannabis and music and the cultural shift occurred as a result, whilst never failing to pull us back to the sobering reality of the war on drugs and the disproportionate effects it has on minority groups. One of the most distressing elements of the documentary is the story of Bernard Noble, a black man sentenced to 14 years in prison for having $5 worth of cannabis in his possession. His family talk about how their lives have been torn apart as a result.
The documentary ends by discussing the future of cannabis in America. Despite the cultural shift in attitudes and its legalisation in various states, there were still 600,000 people arrested for cannabis possession in 2017. In the same year, those states made $1.4 billion in legal weed sales, with less than 1% of black people owning dispensaries. We see the commercialisation of cannabis and weed-related products at events such as ‘CannaCon’, though it is clear that legal weed sales are still not accessible to black people and ethnic minorities.
Overall, Grass is Greener is an insightful look into the complex history of marijuana culture, the music that influenced it, and the effects of unjust drug laws on people of colour. It is extremely informative, with statistics driving home the core argument behind the documentary – cannabis attitudes may be changing, but people of colour are not receiving adequate justice. The documentary never becomes too difficult to follow and it makes for a captivating watch, with great music to accompany it. Slow motion shots of people smoking and weed-related songs (from Peter Tosh’s ‘Legalize it’, to Snoop Dogg and Dr Dre’s ‘The Next Episode’) play throughout, which should be enough to get any music fan engaged in this piece. This documentary is essential viewing for anyone who has dabbled in any kind of marijuana use in their lifetime, as the unjust and muddy history that comes along with it mustn’t be ignored. If you can get a marijuana sceptic to sit down for 97 minutes to watch it, even better. A documentary about cannabis culture told from those with lived experience has been long overdue, and Grass is Greener gets it pretty spot on.