Evergreen: The Road to Legalization in Washington: Film Review

Involving doc moves beyond "should we end the war on pot" to "how should we do it?"

The "Evergreen State" fights over how best to legalize pot in Riley Morton and Nils Cowan's lively doc.

SEATTLE -- Who needs pros vs. cons when you can rile the citizenry with a showdown between two groups on the same side of an issue? In Evergreen: The Road to Legalization in Washington, Riley Morton and Nils Cowan follow a successful campaign (which followed some unsuccessful ones) to make Washington the first state in the Union, tied with Colorado, to legalize recreational pot-smoking. Far from being of interest only to locals at this fest, the film explores arguments that will be increasingly important as more states take stabs at rethinking America's War on Drugs. Recent films (Eugene Jarecki's The House I Live In, for example) have painted a more comprehensive picture of that war's failure, but Evergreen offers an important boots-on-the-ground perspective, and should attract attention at art houses while other docs are made to keep the conversation going.

At issue is last year's Initiative 502, vocally backed by the ACLU's Alison Holcomb and travel writer Rick Steves and notable for its sponsorship by former U.S. Attorney John McKay and other establishment figures. Though one might expect any legalization bill to be celebrated by both recreational and medical users of pot (not to mention the members of the former group currently passing for the latter), that turns out not to be the case.

A vocal anti-502 group emerges, whose advocates range from Sensible Washington's Doug Hiatt, sponsor of earlier legalization initiatives, to Steve Sarich, a pot grower and enthusiastic noisemaker described as obnoxious even by some of his comrades. Opponents argue that 502 is far from real legalization -- keeping home-growing a crime, for instance, and setting a standard for intoxication so low that legitimate medical-marijuana patients will be unable to drive legally long after using the drug. (It's worth noting that a DUI arrest is, at least in Washington, far more serious than being charged with possession.)

Each side questions the other's hidden motives, and Evergreen prefers recording these insinuations to digging into each participant's personal history so it might weigh their merit. It's clear, though, that there's some truth on both sides, with pro-502 forces making serious concessions to law-and-order voters and anti-502 activists nursing some wounded egos, clinging to arguably unrealistic all-or-nothing game plans, and in some cases having an economic interest in the status quo. (Even those who don't have a business at stake might balk at the level of taxation envisioned by the initiative's drafters.)

The personalities and rhetoric are colorful and the film's presentation is lively, though some viewers will wish for a little more rigor: When an infographic claims that 42.4 percent of Americans are pot users, without defining "user" or citing a source, many skeptical eyebrows will rise. [Producers report that more citations have been added to the cut now screening.] There will be plenty of time to explore stats like that one, though, as Washington's experience informs other states' efforts to move from decriminalization of certain uses to a broader, regulated legalization.

Production Companies: Hemlock Productions, Overland Pictures

Director: Riley Morton

Screenwriter: Nils Cowan

Producers: Jason Reid, Nils Cowan, Riley Morton

Executive producer: Andy McDonough

Director of photography: Riley Morton

Music: John Low

Editor: Darren Lund, Jason Reid

No rating, 85 minutes