'The Culture High': Film Review

Courtesy of The Culture High
You don’t need to be an expert to appreciate the advantages of rethinking the “War on Drugs"

Policy wonks, physicians, reformed drug dealers, comedians and rappers all try to make the case for decriminalization of marijuana

After an in-depth exploration of British Columbia’s illicit marijuana production and distribution system in 2007’s The Union: The Business Behind Getting High, filmmakers Brett Harvey and Adam Scorgie return to examine the shifting landscape of pot regulation in the US. Haphazardly packaged and indulgently redundant, the documentary will appeal principally to conspiracy-inclined and poorly informed viewers. 

Essentially a compendium of original interviews directed by Harvey that are cut together with stock, archival and news footage, the film relies on the information and opinions provided by an assortment of policy pundits, former law enforcement figures, medical experts and journalists, with frequent contributions from comedians and musicians who traffic in cannabis-related material. Harvey’s thesis, overlain by a surfeit of ancillary material, comes down to the proposition that marijuana is ripe for deregulation.

Skipping over the early history of cannabis in the US, when the plant was used primarily for the production of hemp fiber, Harvey traces the crux of the current pot debate to the criminalization of the drug in the 1930s and the Nixon administration’s subsequent focus on eradicating it as an outcome of establishing the Drug Enforcement Administration. That initiative, spurred particularly by subsequent state and federal Republican administrations, eventually grew into the long-running “War on Drugs,” which the film concludes is currently focused primarily on marijuana-related enforcement.

An overlong segment looks at the health benefits of cannabis-related medical treatments and the growth of state-approved medical marijuana laws. Harvey seems particularly motivated to establish that the herb – cultivated in a multitude of different varieties worldwide -- isn’t a contributor to mental health problems or a “gateway drug” leading to destructive abuse, as politicians and law enforcement authorities have alleged for decades.

The film picks up some momentum with its consideration of the current law-enforcement climate, observing that the majority of spending on drug interdiction focuses on marijuana-related arrests and results in the seizure of billions of dollars in assets forfeited by convicted criminals, which in turn help support local, state and federal enforcement efforts. As a result, incarceration rates for drug-related offenses have burgeoned, with young African-American men facing a higher rate of arrest and conviction than any other population. In particular, the film contends that law enforcement funding and activity have increased since Obama became president, in contravention of his campaign commitments.

Despite, or perhaps due to, increased focus on interdiction, individual states are diverging from federal policy and enforcement practices, not only on the medical marijuana issue, but on also on decriminalization as well, with Washington and Colorado legalizing production and possession of small amounts of pot and other states likely to follow. Whether or not national drug policy now faces a tipping point, with widespread rejection of federal laws soon to ensue, the film nonetheless neglects to reinforce its case by examining the potential economic advantages of marijuana legalization, as well as the related social benefits of lower incarceration rates. 

The doc’s list of interview subjects, noticeably lacking in nationally recognizable figures (with perhaps the exception of rappers Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa), makes up for a lack of originality with an abundance of sources. Distractingly brief interview snippets are intercut with an overwhelming amount of digressive archival and news footage that results in unnecessarily diluting the film’s principal message. What new information The Culture High offers is almost entirely subsumed by its sprawling ambitions to make every conceivable connection to the marijuana debate, limiting both its reliability and its impact.

Opens: Oct. 3 (Phase 4 Films

Production companies: Score G Productions, BKS-Crew Productions, Sophia Entertainment

Director: Brett Harvey

Screenwriters: Michael Bobroff, Brett Harvey

Producers: Michael Bobroff, Don Metz, Adam Scorgie

Executive Producers: Andrew Napier, Kieran Maguire, Bianca Barnhill, Todd McCormick, Adam Scorgie, Tim Brown

Director of photography: Brett Harvey

Editor: StephenGreen

Music: Steve Badach, Michael Champion


No rating, 120 minutes