Let’s recap, Canada: what’s new in the realm of marijuana as it relates to the Great White North? Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party has been leading the federal polls with a campaign that includes talks of legalization. The country’s “Prince of Pot” Marc Emery just got released from prison serving five years for selling cannabis seeds. South of the border, Washington and Colorado have become the first jurisdictions in the United States to legalize recreational cannabis use, while other states show potential to follow suit.
With all of this going on at once, the issue of legalizing weed in Canada is more at the public forefront than ever. Most Canadian citizens have some opinion on the subject, though our viewpoints might not always be well-informed. For those looking to gain insight, there is one documentary I would recommend that provides a compelling overview of marijuana and its role in North America both past and present. That documentary is The Union: The Business Behind Getting High.
The article below is a slightly revised version of a piece I wrote in 2009 about the film, with footnotes added to clarify information that has since become outdated. A more current outlook on the topic can be expected from the upcoming follow-up documentary, The Culture High, to be released this fall.
The Business Behind Getting High
Some say marijuana is harmless; others say it kills brain cells and inflicts lung cancer, among other things. Often, both sides of the argument over its prohibition in North America1 are defended with unproven claims and accepted rumours. For those who want a clear outlook on the reality of the debate surrounding marijuana legalization, Kelowna filmmaker Adam Scorgie has made a documentary that presents the facts in a straightforward, statistically supported way.
The Union: The Business Behind Getting High takes an in-depth look at the nature of the billion dollar underground industry surrounding marijuana (dubbed ‘The Union’ in the film). It focuses on the benefits of legalizing marijuana, such as economic and medicinal uses, while correcting common misconceptions and outright lies about the plant. Historical and political reasons for its illegal status are presented, and it is compared to accepted legal substances like alcohol and tobacco. The film features the input of all kinds of people with relevant knowledge of marijuana, ranging from politicians to marijuana growers to celebrities such as Tommy Chong.
Since its 2007 release, the documentary has been showcased at a variety of venues throughout North America, including more than 30 film festivals. It made its way onscreen at the Paramount Theatre in Kamloops on Mar. 122, with its maker in attendance to answer questions from the audience after the showing.
Scorgie, who produced and wrote the film with the help of director Brett Harvey, began work on the project in 2004. The Union is his first film.
Upon returning to Kelowna after attending film school in New York, he had originally considered growing marijuana himself, but ultimately decided to take his interest in the plant in another direction.
“It’s just so in your face here in the culture of B.C., so I looked at getting into it,” he said. “But then I thought ‘Well, I went to film school for four years. [Growing marijuana] is just not my thing. Maybe I could do a film about it because nobody’s ever touched on it this way.’ Then, as it does with documentaries, it just grows because you learn so much more than you ever thought you would.”
He considers his own initial ignorance on the subject to have been an asset in presenting the facts of his film in a fair way.
“I think that was why we were able to send it in the direction it went,” he said. “We didn’t have an agenda when we started originally. We just wanted to do an exposé of the B.C. [marijuana] industry. But as we started doing interviews and doing research and really finding out what was going on we’re like ‘wow, we really didn’t know what was going on either.’”
In the process of enlightening himself, Scorgie became interested in educating others who were uninformed about the topic.
“We knew we could get the marijuana culture involved,” he said. “They’re always very supportive. But we also wanted to get people who had never even listened to this argument to come to watch and listen.”
He plans to continue attracting people to the argument through a grassroots DVD release campaign that has involved contacting several head shops and video stores. The documentary is scheduled to be released on DVD in North America this June3, although it is already available on disc in the United Kingdom.
“We had a tough time getting a distributor in North America,” Scorgie said. “They kept telling us that it wouldn’t have any commercial success and that nobody wanted to see it.”
It seems those distributors were wrong, judging by the film’s two-year tour of theatres and film festivals, as well as the large audience in attendance at the Paramount for its Kamloops screening.
“Every time I seem to think that this is done and that people are forgetting about it we get great turnouts like tonight,” Scorgie said.
He partially attributes the continuing interest in the film to problems like the current gang violence in Vancouver4.
“On the news they keep talking about the gang wars, but they’re not talking about what all the gangs are fighting over, and it’s drugs,” Scorgie said. “It’s not all marijuana. It’s cocaine and heroin and other drugs too. When there’s a black market and there’s a profit motive there, people will be willing to hurt each other for lots of money. And the way the economy is right now and the drug prices being high, people are going to kill each other, as we’re seeing, for control of this market.”
Part of his film explores marijuana’s role in this market, and the consequences that its illegal status has on fuelling crime in general. It shows how some of these issues might be dealt with by legalizing cultivation and use of the plant.
Scorgie is not a marijuana activist himself. However, for those interested in assisting the legalization process, he recommends contacting the non-profit organization LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition).
“They’re getting the best response because they have ex-cops, police chiefs and undercovers that have all been fighting it for years,” Scorgie said. “People seem to listen to them because they’re like ‘hey, I fought the drug war for 20 years and I see it makes no sense.’”
Such officials, as well as members of other professions that may not typically be expected to support the legalization of marijuana, are included in Scorgie’s documentary. Their input helps lend credibility to the information presented in the film. So does the fact that many of the people interviewed do not smoke themselves, providing a more balanced perspective of the issue.
“I think it makes it more powerful when they’re doing presentations that they don’t smoke but they still see what a sensible policy should be,” he said.
As for his own potential bias, Scorgie said that he does not smoke marijuana on a regular basis.
“I am not an avid smoker,” he said. However, he added that he has occasionally indulged in marijuana in the past. “Yes I definitely have smoked – and I did inhale.”
– Cory Magnus Stumpf
1When this article was originally written, marijuana prohibition was ubiquitous across all of North America. At the time of this blog post, its recreational use has since been legalized in the states of Colorado and Washington.
2March 12, 2009.
3June 2009. The film is now widely available.