Marijuana has only been fully legal in California for a few years, which is a short enough time to remember the bad old days when you had to have a relatively meaningless doctor-approved ID card to buy weed. Or the bad old days before that, when there was no way to acquire weed legally.
But for many cannabis users, those bad old days are still happening. Across the nation, people – mostly people of color – are languishing in jail cells for minor marijuana possession offenses, even as states legalize cannabis for both medical and recreational use. In California, the largest marketplace for legal weed in the United States, you can buy pot just a few miles from jails where people are held for doing the exact same thing.
Illinois is taking a more responsible approach, where officials are working to expunge three-quarters of a million low-level convictions across the state in the wake of legalization. But that’s a less common approach, and a drop in the bucket in terms of the entire history of marijuana criminalization in America, which has roots in racism and xenophobia, and has disproportionately targeted people of color.
Grass Is Greener: A new Netflix documentary
It’s all outlined in Grass Is Greener, the new Netflix documentary about the history of marijuana in the US. Directed and narrated by hip-hop legend Fab Five Freddy, the film outlines how powerful interests have used marijuana as a scare tactic to stoke racist fears and enact draconian drug laws.
If you’re in your 40s or older, you probably remember Fab as the host of Yo! MTV Raps, a classic music and interview show devoted to hip hop. In Grass, he harnesses that experience to create the film’s framework: a parallel history of music and weed in America. The opening minutes lean into the music angle hard, crafting its credits in the style of old Blue Note album covers. Fab’s godfather was famed jazz drummer Max Roach, so his connection to the world of music was sealed at birth.
It’s a great narrative choice, since early jazz musicians were among the first victims of pot laws aimed primarily at African-Americans and Latinos. Indeed, the word “marijuana” was essentially used by law enforcement figures because it sounded more Mexican than “cannabis.” But jazz greats like Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong weren’t bashful about their love of weed and the creative avenues it opened up for them. They called it jive and reefer.
The film moves on to other genres like reggae and hip hop – the popularity of Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines” an indication that the hip hop community had a nuanced understanding of drug use. At Grass’s midpoint, though, it departs from the relationship between music and weed and focuses largely on a more critical issue – the use of marijuana laws to curb racial and cultural revolutions.
“A one-way ticket to the nuthouse.”
The primary tactic used by opponents of marijuana in the early days of anti-pot laws was to portray it not only as a drug used by black and brown people — thereby garnering white support for the laws — but to also make people believe it had an almost Lovecraftian quality to it. Pot, they said, turned users into ravenous murderers and rapists with an endless thirst for mayhem. Of course, users would be described as black and brown and their victims as white women.
Population centers were shifting, and people of color were moving into cities shoulder-to-shoulder with white people. Whites worried that their daughters would be seduced by black jazz musicians, that they’d let their guard down and be violated. (The notion of women’s sexual freedom was, coincidentally, never brought up.)
The film spends a good bit of time discussing Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Treasury’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics. More than just a garden-variety racist, Anslinger was opposed to both marijuana and alcohol, favoring prohibition at the federal level. But his most enduring work was his “Gore File,” a library of newspaper clippings about bloody and/or lascivious crimes. Not content with simply running an agency that prosecuted pot users – most of whom were black – he used mass media to spread disinformation on pot, leveraging his friendship with newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.
The most famous of Anslinger’s Gore Files was a story he wrote for The American Magazine about Victor Licata, a Florida man who killed his entire family, allegedly under the influence of cannabis. Of course now we know that there are plenty of people with mental illnesses like depression and anxiety who find relief in pot, and that it’s more likely Licata was using cannabis to quiet the same impulses that drove him to kill. But Anslinger saw the connection differently, and the damage was done.
Today, Anslinger’s legacy exists in the form of draconian drug laws that essentially creates a permanent underclass of people of color. Mandatory-minimum laws arose in the 50s, taking sentencing power from judges and juries. Then Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act into law in 1971, establishing the DEA and classifying marijuana as a Schedule One narcotic – in the same group as cocaine and heroin.
Nixon was nearly as bad as Anslinger, fearing cannabis would fuel a political uprising that would threaten his presidency. But as Grass shows in clips from Nixon’s own recordings, his judgment wasn’t exactly sound, as he also expressed plenty of anti-Semitic attitudes. Of his Chief of Staff John Erlichmann, he asked: “Why are all the people supporting legalization Jews?” Erlichmann himself later admitted that “we couldn’t make it illegal to be against the war or black,” so they criminalized pot, which was present in both anti-war and African-American communities.
The Film Ends on a Happy Note
The release from prison of Bernard Noble, a Louisiana man imprisoned for 13 years for carrying a minuscule amount of cannabis. The pot was discovered via a stop-and-frisk effort by a policeman. He only served seven years, but emerged from prison a changed man.
At times Grass Is Greener feels a little conspiratorial – but none of the information it presents is wrong. It describes a generations-long effort to reclassify a harmless plant as fuel for a riotous mob of violent thugs, coming to your home to steal your daughters. The history of US drug laws is fraught with racism, sexism, xenophobia and lives destroyed for no good reason. Grass Is Greener just tells it like it is.