Jayden was 4 months old when he began having seizures. By the time he was 6, he had been diagnosed with Dravet’s syndrome, a rare and catastrophic form of childhood epilepsy that causes him to have dozens of seizures a day. Although Jayden was on 22 different medications, none significantly relieved his pain or lessened the seizures.
Desperate and afraid for his son’s life, Jayden’s father, Jason, tried an alternative remedy: cannabis*. The first day he gave it to his son was the first the little boy went seizure-free. With continued use of cannabis, Jayden’s other medications were gradually reduced to just two pills a day. He walked, learned to speak and was able to do many other things that before cannabis would have been inconceivable for this pale, skinny, bespectacled child.
The Consequences of Criminalization
Jayden’s story is one of the more emotionally charged anecdotes in the 2014 documentary “The Culture High,” the latest film from the makers of “The Union: The Business Behind Getting High” (2007). “The Culture High” explores what the filmmakers believe to be the deep irrationality behind the criminalization of marijuana and the sometimes devastating effects of criminalization.
The filmmakers, Brett Harvey and Michael Bobroff, are open about their bias in favor of legalizing marijuana in the U.S. and use the film to address the issue from a variety of angles. They appeal to reason, presenting well-researched, compelling data about the relative safety of marijuana for recreational use (especially compared to alcohol) and the possible health benefits cannabis provides to those with certain conditions. I found it virtually impossible to walk away from the film believing that continuing to put people in prison for using marijuana makes any sense at all.
The documentary’s colorful lineup of characters includes Snoop Dogg, Wiz Khalifa and former Baltimore police detective and “The Wire” co-creator Ed Burns. The most compelling arguments come not from the household names, though, but from the doctors, scientists and former law enforcement officials who argue that the U.S. legal system is painfully behind the times and wrong-headed when it comes to marijuana use and possession.
“The Culture High” begins by tackling one of the biggest questions around marijuana: Is it addictive and/or physically harmful? There’s no simple answer here: Some will become addicted to alcohol, others to gambling, still others to cigarettes or sex. And some will become pot addicts. Marijuana naturally comes, too, with plenty of physical risks, but according to data cited in the film, it’s not more dangerous than alcohol when it comes to car accidents and injuries. “We looked at 20 different drugs [legal and illegal] on 16 measures of harm to the user and to wider society,” explains Dr. David Nutt, former chief of drugs advisor to the British government, in the film. In Nutt’s research, alcohol ranked as the most harmful of the 20 drugs, scoring 72 out of a possible 100 — far more damaging than even heroin (55) or crack cocaine (54). And what did marijuana score in Nutt’s research on harm? Just 20. Regardless of one’s personal views about marijuana — or alcohol, for that matter — the film argues that as long as alcohol is legal, marijuana prohibition is not logically or scientifically defensible, especially considering the documented medical benefits of cannabis.
What Marijuana Prohibition Has Wrought
Concerns about the safety of marijuana are where the “The Culture High” filmmakers begin. They then walk the viewer through the effects of marijuana prohibition: The “drug war” (which is of course only partly about pot) has killed more Mexicans than the Vietnam War did Americans. It has corrupted Mexico’s police force in unimaginably terrifying ways. And while the U.S. government claims to be fighting drugs on every front, only very rarely does the government imprison anyone high on the drug-trafficking food chain. More often than not, it’s the disproportionately non-white recreational users who find themselves behind bars. A former law enforcement official explains it this way in the film: “Beginning in the 1980s, police departments became a numbers game. One arrest is one arrest. It’s not easy to get a [drug] trafficker. It’s not like going out on the street corner or shaking out the lockers of a high school.”
The film makes the argument that if we were really serious about ending drug trafficking to the U.S., the fastest way to do it would be to legalize marijuana. “The Culture High” offers a compelling analysis of the obstacles to legalization, primarily among those who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo: law enforcement, the prison system and, perhaps most of all, Big Pharma — the companies that make billions selling medications for conditions that might be alleviated (more effectively, even, in some cases) by medical cannabis.
Clearly, the makers of “The Culture High” support the legalization of marijuana. And they present compelling evidence to support their agenda. However, little of the film discusses any negative effects of taking marijuana recreationally, such as the well-known harmful consequences on the still-developing adolescent brain. Further, for many, there’s a big difference between legalizing marijuana for medicinal use and doing so for recreational use. The film sometimes conflates the two, probably unintentionally implying that legalization is an all-or-nothing decision. That said, when lives like Jayden’s are so radically improved by cannabis, and our jails are overcrowded with non-violent offenders busted for pot, it’s our responsibility to inform ourselves with as much knowledge on the issue of marijuana legalization — for and against — as possible. “The Culture High” isn’t a wholly balanced perspective, yet it’s one still worth hearing when considering the crossroads our country is at when it comes to cannabis.
*Jayden and many others who use cannabis for medical reasons use a high CBD, low THC formula. CBD (Cannabidiol) is a compound in cannabis that has medical effects but does not have the psychoactive properties of THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol, the primary psychoactive element in cannabis).
Photo courtesy of The Culture High