Dick and Jane’s addiction

Ron Mann chronicles our tragicomic struggle with demon weed.

Sep 27, 2000 at 12:00 am
Grass, a documentary covering the 100-year war against marijuana, was assembled by Ron Mann and has much of the zippy panache of his hugely entertaining Comic Book Confidential. You may think you know this story — and you probably do know much of it — but Mann has managed to freshen it up with an impressive array of found images both familiar and obscure.

The tale is told in linear fashion, beginning with the importation of the drug into the United States by Mexican workers around the turn of the century, an origin which would seal its fate as a seed borne by an unfathomable other; the very name “marijuana,” when properly pronounced, has a taint of foreign sensuality. One can easily understand how the myth quickly arose that smoking weed would lead to wanton sexuality, the sin traditionally associated with minorities. But the idea that it would also lead to homicidal violence is a peculiarly American twist. Mann has managed to unearth a clip of an anti-dope silent western wherein a peace-loving cowpoke tokes down and proceeds to put a cap into somebody’s ass for no good reason. This equating of lowered inhibitions with murderous rage seems bizarrely pessimistic, but it’s a good insight into the dream life of the powers that be.

By the ’30s, thanks largely to the efforts of Harry J. Anslinger, who was the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 to 1962, grass had been demonized to the point where it was thought to lead not only to sex and violence but insanity. Here we get the famous Reefer Madness scenes of David O’Brien flipping his wig under huge billows of smoke (one of the many unintentional jokes of that film is that nobody ever inhales). And so it goes, with the insidious weed becoming a Commie menace during the Cold War, a gateway to hard drugs during the swinging ’60s (just as coffee would be a gateway to amphetamines if they were sold on the same shelf), through a brief period of liberalization during the ’70s, and finally to the present where if you say that it’s no more harmful than cigarettes, the response is a triumphant “exactly!”

Meanwhile, according to Mann, independent scientific research has shown that people who smoke grass tend to laugh a lot, get hungry and then sleepy. That’s an outrage, any way you look at it.

Richard C. Walls writes about film and music for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].