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Pot Shots

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 22, 2000

   


I'm not proposing that director Ron Mann should have called "Grass," his newest documentary, something more like "Oregano," but there is a bit of false advertising going on here. In a sense, the movie is about marijuana in the way that "Saving Private Ryan" was about Hitler.

Dope, ganja, the evil weed is there in the background all right, stinking up the place with its sweetly acrid smoke, but the film's true subject matter is not really drugs but the war on drugs. As such, it's more filled with dry facts and figures, old black-and-white newsreel footage and boring, right wing talking heads (e.g., Richard Nixon, George Bush, Ronald Reagan) than it is with actual information about Mary Jane herself – and that's the film's real bummer. By the way, in case you're wondering on which side of the issue Mann and his narrator, hemp activist Woody Harrelson, come down, an on-screen graphic enumerating the hundreds of billions of dollars that have been spent enforcing federal drug policy in the last 20 years is accompanied by the sound effect of a toilet flushing.

Unlike Mann's earlier work, such as "Comic Book Confidential," a lively history of the comic book, and "Twist," a wry look at the evolution of rock 'n' roll dancing, "Grass" is a fairly dull treatise, tracing the U.S. government's current ineffectual efforts to eradicate recreational marijuana use, from the early crusade of one Harry J. Anslinger, the first director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (a precursor to the current Drug Enforcement Administration), to the more recent "Just Say No" campaign of Nancy Reagan. Although Mann mixes in such sure-fire laugh-getters as clips from propaganda films like the legendary "Reefer Madness" and an educational short that asks "Marijuana: Threat or Menace?," the film's legislative story line – the passage of bills, laws and uniform codes of prosecution – is a real buzz-kill.

We learn that dope makes you happy and relaxed, then sleepy (duh!), not unlike alcohol, but we don't learn anything about its chemistry or the current state of medical research as to its long- and short-term effects. Mention is made of Paraquat, an herbicide that turned out to be more dangerous than the drug itself, but not one word is devoted to PCP, a pot additive also known as angel dust or love boat that's been said to lead to psychotic behavior.

Occasionally, Mann weakens already strong points about wasteful spending and political hypocrisy with such cheap and pointless shots as a nervously lip-licking Tricky Dick, Gerald Ford falling down a flight of airplane stairs and anonymous reporters making on-camera bloopers. Har har. I guess all this would be funnier if I were watching it high.

Structured around a faux-sociological time line that traces pronouncements of the "Official Truth" about pot from such chestnuts as "If you use it, you will kill people" to howlers like "If you smoke it, you will be in the grip of Satan and the godless Sodomites that run Hollywood," "Grass" attempts a light touch, but ultimately it can't rise above the sense that it has as much of an ax to grind as the humorless and misguided bureaucrats it mocks.

GRASS (R, 80 minutes) - Contains a couple of naughty words and lots of, um, drug use.

 

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