The Union…The business behind getting high
by Elaine Hegwood Bowen
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The Union is filmmaker Adam Scorgie’s unveiling of the cause and effect nature of the marijuana industry—a business that may be profiting more by being illegal.
The documentary opens with a discussion of marijuana’s origins in hemp, and how this fabric or cord produces cannabis and used to be one of the largest agricultural products in the United States. Fifty percent of the medicine in the last half of the 19th century was made from cannabis, and there were 10,000 years of known marijuana use before it was deemed undesirable with the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act. The Act didn’t make it illegal to possess or use hemp, marijuana or cannabis, but it levied a tax equaling roughly $1 on anyone who dealt commercially in cannabis, hemp or marijuana. There were penalty provisions, violations of which could result in a person being fined up to $2,000 or five years’ imprisonment. Apparently, not many people paid much attention to this now antiquated act, since there were about 55,000 U.S. marijuana users in 1937 and now there are 50 million users.
But the documentary reveals that it was determined that you couldn’t get high from hemp, and yellow journalism in the early 20th century depicted the “reefer madness” craze in which Black and Mexicans were portrayed as “frenzied beasts who smoked marijuana, played the devil’s music and heaped disrespect and viciousness on the readership, a majority of whom happened to be white.”
In the Union, an ex-Harvard Medical Center physician submits that there is no basis around the fear of marijuana being physically harmful, and other clinicians attest to the fact that only one in 104 reefer users goes on to use cocaine. “There’s not one death attributed to reefer use,” said Dr. Lester Grinspoon, “while lung cancer is a No. 1 killer.”
It also takes an in-depth look at Vancouver, British Columbia, and its grow ops (reefer gardens in private homes) and how marijuana is freely used in public. It looks at the “union,” which is organized around marijuana use, i.e., individual private growers, real estate agents or landlords who allow these properties to be used, hardware stores that provide lighting fixtures, hoses and other equipment used to harvest marijuana, and other businesses that benefit from the growth, harvest and sale of marijuana in Canada.
Virtually every presidential candidate has copped to using marijuana, the documentary reveals, and maybe this is telling, given the stresses of daily life. “Reefer is used as a scapegoat to cover up underlying problems in people’s lives,” says Dr. Todd Mikuruya.
In all, The Union is a fantastic, honest-to-goodness primer on marijuana use in the United States and an even better examination of it being a huge economic contributor in British Columbia, without all the subsequent negative problems that the United States faces—in its continued “war on drugs.” The documentary suggests that, as far as marijuana is concerned, the United States needs to throw in the white flag, surrender and just allow both medicinal and recreational use of marijuana.
The Union…The business behind getting high is available on Phase4 Films DVD July 28.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen is an editor, writer and film critic in Chicago.
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