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New York City Cannabis Film Festival Spotlights the Hard Work Towards Legalization — And the Harder Work Still to Come

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The New York Cannabis Film Festival returned to Brooklyn this past weekend for its fourth annual installment, this time at the venerable Bushwick arts venue House of Yes. Presented by cannabis community and events platform High NY, the film festival featured not only comedy and adventure on its programming, but also several documentary films tackling political and social issues around cannabis legalization — and reminding us how far the movement has come, and how much further it has yet to go. 

Our mission here is to use media to normalize cannabis,” said Michael Zaytsev (a.k.a. Mike Z), founder of High NY. We have a wide range of films because we want people to see how intersectional the cannabis plant is and how it touches people’s lives in so many different ways. We want to show people that it’s super versatile and the culture is more than just Cheech and Chong.”

In The Secret Story: How Medical Cannabis Was Re-Legalized in the US, filmmaker Brian Applegarth examines California’s medical marijuana movement. In the late 1960s, a radical political organization called the Youth International Party (fondly known as the Yippies”) formed out of the anti-war, psychedelic counterculture, and left-wing socialist movements. Among other boisterous political activities, the Yippies advocated strongly for marijuana law reform. 

One of the Yippies, the late Dennis Peron moved to San Francisco and became a leader of the marijuana movement. There, he also had ties to the LGBTQ community, being a gay man himself. By the 1980’s, the HIV/AIDS epidemic had devastated gay communities in cities across the U.S. People were losing everyone they knew,” fellow pot activist John Entwistle, Jr. says in the film. We’re talking death on a scale that was terrifying.”

Marijuana enthusiasts discovered that the plant provided relief to AIDS patients who suffered from wasting syndrome, which left them starved and emaciated. Marijuana let them eat again, and reduced their physical pain and depression. In 1992, Mary Jane Rathbun (known better as Brownie Mary”) was arrested in Cazadero, CA for baking marijuana brownies to share with AIDS patients.

Applegarth’s film details how throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, Peron, Entwistle, Rathbun, and their peers helped organize the Cannabis Buyers’ Club in several locations throughout San Francisco. Sick AIDS patients flooded to the underground market to purchase medicinal marijuana, even as Peron battled arrests and legal challenges from police and the state. 

Buoyed by increasing local and national renown, the San Francisco activists in 1991 successfully passed Proposition P in the city, calling on the state government to allow the sale of medical cannabis. In 1996, Peron co-authored Proposition 215, a ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana in California. 

Prop 215’s imminent success frightened state and federal governments. A month before the election, the California Attorney General ordered a raid on Peron’s house. They came to his house and kicked the door down, went upstairs and arrested Peron,” Entwistle recalls in the film. The headlines said, the author of Prop 215 was arrested and is in jail.’ The result was it bumped us up six points in the polls!”

Proposition 215 passed with 55 percent support, making California the first state to legalize medical marijuana, thus pioneering the modern legalization movement. Meanwhile, almost 20 years later and 1,400 miles away, the much more conservative state of Texas legalized CBD oil for patients with intractable epilepsy. More restrictive than Prop 215, Texas’ Compassionate Use Act, authorized a registry of physicians to recommend the drug and created a licensing system for companies to produce it.

This is the story of Out of Options, a Texas Tribune documentary by Todd Wiseman, following two Texan families seeking CBD oil for their epileptic children. Among the main subjects is Benjamin, a five-year old boy who failed eight seizure medications and is too young for surgery. His seizures are so debilitating that they’ve taken the life from my son,” his mother Laura says in the film. 

Though CBD oil is legal, it costs about $400 for a single dose. It’s going to cost us an arm and a leg,” Laura says. I’m a single mom. It’s scary to think there might be something out there that can help my son that I can’t afford.”

Another patient featured in the documentary, 20-year old Zack, also suffers seizures that prevent him from studying or enjoying his favorite activities. Nothing in the parent manual prepares you for the helplessness you feel when your child is suffering,” his mother Mary Beth says, during a scene in which she helps Zack lay on his bed during an epileptic attack. If I could save him by taking his seizures somehow, I would do it in a heartbeat.”

For Texan patients to obtain CBD, they must get a recommendation from two physicians, only after trying and failing to treat their condition with two other seizure medications. Upwards of 170,000 Texans may qualify for CBD treatment, but only 30 physicians in the state are licensed to recommend it. And more than three years after the law’s passage, only three facilities are open to sell it in the state (two in its capital of Austin and one about 80 miles away in the small town of Schulenberg). 

If you only have a couple of dispensaries in the entire state that have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to open and operate, but only a couple registered patients, it’s not going to cover their costs,” Jason Isaac, Texas State Representative for District 45 who co-authored legislation to expand the law, says in the film. It’s going to drive up costs for patients who are eligible. We need to expand access to medical care, which ultimately will drive down the cost.”

With so many questions around the new law, director Todd Wiseman said he hoped to shed some light on the story through his documentary. We sought to humanize a controversial issue in a red state like Texas, take something abstract like a law and make it real for the viewers on an emotional level,” he told Civilized. If anything, we hope it helps viewers get a better sense of what medical cannabis use in Texas looks like on a personal level.”

While Applegarth and Wiseman’s films illustrate the failure of cannabis prohibition for medical patients — and the promise of increased access — a documentary by VICE News shows the social and economic damage wreaked on black communities by the War on Drugs.

Dimebags vs. Dispensaries: Street Dealers to Multi-Million Dollar Weed Startups, narrated by VICE creative producer Lee Adams, follows the story of Felix and Kingston as they make the leap from underground weed dealers in Atlanta, Georgia to the $40 million-valued California cannabis brand, Gas House OG.

But Felix and Kingston are a rare exception of successful black cannabis entrepreneurs in an industry where they have few peers. When it comes to marijuana, you think of minorities as only being the sellers, the street peddlers,” Kingston says in the film. You don’t look at them as being in the industry with a brand. When they see us we’re like the elephant in the room — until we speak.”

The documentary details Adams’ visit to Oakland, CA, to see if local residents have any hope for entering the industry after the city implemented a cannabis equity program that reserves 50 percent of permits to long-time residents of neighborhoods most affected by the Drug War. But many locals see legalization as a boon to more affluent cities, doing little to help their community.

I think we’re just pushing people into doing different things to make their money,” says Oakland resident Mook. The price of marijuana on the streets goes up because of how accessible it is now. Everybody out here has to have top-notch product to even compete with the stores. So we’re gonna have to hustle other products — that’ll never change.” 

In talking about his film, Lee Adams told Civilized, If you want people to succeed and you really want to give them an opportunity, you have to start at the beginning and put them in a position to succeed. Because budtender jobs after the industry is twenty years old and its millionaires have been made is not real opportunity.”

The New York Cannabis Film Festival brought together a diverse crowd of cannabis enthusiasts on a very cold January afternoon. Attendees were treated to complimentary popcorn, pizza, and even mochi ice cream. Outside the theater, local cannabis brands including Come Back Daily, New York’s first experimental CBD club, and Citiva, Brooklyn’s first medical dispensary, shared information and products.

But while audiences celebrated marijuana’s ability to bring friends and family together, the films also reminded them of the painful history and struggles that have brought us to this point. Invest in each other, fight for equity, and support the entrepreneurs whose visions you believe in,” Adams said. And don’t forget those who are in prison for doing the same things that people can now freely do in more than half the country.”

Photo Credit: High NY

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