Marijuana—cannabis, weed, pot, bud, reefer—has played a significant role in shaping American society since the early 1900s.
Most of that has to do with how the plant has been demonized from generation to generation, as the government broadcasted anti-marijuana propaganda to the public despite the evidence that marijuana was and is not the menace to society it has been claimed to be.
A new Netflix documentary, Grass Is Greener, traces back the history of American drug policy to illustrate how we as a society came to believe that this relatively benign, naturally occurring substance could wreak havoc on people’s lives, how it shaped the evolution of music and culture in the United States, and how it became a symbol of resistance to the powers that be.
The documentary, directed and narrated by hip hop pioneer and “long-time cannabis connoisseur and advocate” Fab 5 Freddy (Fred Brathwaite), became available for streaming on Netflix, fittingly, over the weekend on 4/20.
“How is it that a mild intoxicant, a plant that grows naturally all over the world, could be so feared by the American government and become worthy of a war?” Brathwaite asks.
The short answer: Harry Anslinger. As the first head of the Bureau of Narcotics in the 1930s, Anslinger launched a racist anti-marijuana crusade sparking fear and spreading false information to the public. He played a major role in demonizing the plant. It was his roundabout way of vilifying black jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong (“one of our glorious, early potheads”) and Mexican people.
Back then, the fear was that marijuana, which was infused in the jazz scene, was bringing white and black people together, says Baz Dreisinger of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in the documentary. As jazz music gained steam around the world, so did the U.S. government’s anti-marijuana fervor.
From here, marijuana further influenced music and culture by paving the way for the Beat Generation and the hippie movement.
The documentary highlights two instances where the state commissioned a report to study the effects of marijuana—and in both instances, the conclusion was the same.
“The occasional use of marijuana does not do any physical harm and may not do any psychological harm,” the Shafer Commission stated during the 1970s. They were appointed by former President Richard Nixon—the man who declared drugs Public Enemy Number 1 and declared the “War on Drugs” as we know it—to study marijuana. Nixon was expecting the commission’s findings to support his anti-weed stance, but they found the opposite.
“There has been previous misinformation, false statements, and for that reason, we’ve attempted to demythologize the drug,” the commission stated. “Unfortunately, because marijuana has become politicized, the realities have become blurred.”
Years earlier, a 1944 report commissioned by New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia stated a similar conclusion. However, the laws did not reflect the report’s findings. Lawmakers “chose propaganda, chose racism” instead, said Kassandra Frederique, New York State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance.
There is so much more that is covered in Grass Is Greener—from the legendary drug dealers of jazz and hip hop, to the damning testimony of Nixon administration official John Ehrlichman who revealed that the administration lied about drugs to vilify people of color and anti-war protestors.
Whether you partake or not, it’s incredible to witness the enormous role that weed has played in shaping American history.
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