While most Americans are familiar with legendary FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who controlled the nation's federal law enforcement agency for decades under several presidents, far less have heard of Henry Anslinger. The temperamental Hoover's early career is perhaps best-defined by his crusade against illegal alcohol during the age of Prohibition (1919-1933), and in particular the gang warfare in Chicago that pitted bootlegger Al Capone against Elliot Ness and "The Untouchables." But as the Great Depression took hold across America in the 1930s, it soon became clear that Prohibition was more trouble than it was worth, leading to its Constitutional repeal and putting the bootleggers out of business. However, it's one thing to say that responsible adults should be allowed to drink in a safe, legal manner in the case of marijuana, the United States has passed a variety of prohibition laws dating back to 1914 in Texas. Anxious over the popularity of pot among immigrant workers, minorities, and the poor, the "demon weed" soon became a matter of national concern. And when the Roosevelt administration created the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, one of the primary issues of its newly minted director, Henry Anslinger, was to get all 50 states to agree to a "Uniform Narcotic Act" that would put pot-smokers behind bars. It's a legacy of prohibition that the United States still lives with today, after billions of dollars spent in law-enforcement, and the incarceration of people who ostensibly have done no harm to anyone but themselves. Or so goes the premise of Grass (1999), a documentary by filmmaker Ron Mann. Despite its appealing title, Grass isn't really a movie about smoking pot it does not attempt to explain any benefits the drug may offer (nor its potential ills), won't tell you different ways you can smoke pot, what different varieties are available from different parts of the world, or get into shifty arguments about why farmers should be able to grow hemp. Rather, Mann dips into nearly a century of marijuana and the legislation that surrounds it, and he comes to one single conclusion widespread ignorance, class discrimination, and political pressures have caused the American government to wage an expensive, long-term, and pointless campaign against anybody who smokes grass. Furthermore, the various laws that prohibit and penalize marijuana use may claim to have a basis in science or promote public safety, but in fact they often have been passed without scientific research on the drug, and they are sustained despite medical inquiries that potentially describe marijuana as no more dangerous a social drug than alcohol. And with other drugs such as heroin and cocaine creating legitimate social problems due to addiction and the criminal activities of addicts, why has the American public resisted marijuana's decriminalization or outright legalization, diverting tax dollars to more pressing issues?
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No matter what your opinion on the topic, Grass is a fun documentary, constructed in a lighthearted manner and with a great sense of humor. Narrated by notable marijuana- and hemp-advocate Woody Harrelson, Mann's film is a brilliant collage of images, sounds, and ideas, taken from a variety of archival sources a trip in the way-back machine with a kaleidoscope windshield. Many comments from government officials are heard, contrasted with a look at some celebrities who got busted for pot (Robert Mitchum, Gene Krupa), and the flourishing of open marijuana use in the 1960s and beyond. Presidents do not escape Mann's view either John Kennedy is seen giving FBN director Anslinger a special order of merit for his work; Richard Nixon makes it clear that he opposes any legalization of marijuana, even when a presidential fact-finding commission appears to support the opposite; Jimmy Carter claims to support decriminalization during his 1976 campaign, but changes course not long thereafter; and the social conservatism of the Reagan and Bush administrations ensure that pot will not be excused from the "War on Drugs." The various tools of propaganda are also recounted over the years the overriding messages to young people that smoking grass will make you homicidal, insane, hooked on heroin, a communist, or just plain lazy. And perhaps best of all are the old films designed to scare kids away from weed. A clip from Reefer Madness is here certainly, and one bit where stoned kids smash the necks off of soda bottles for a swig of pop, broken glass, and blood really gets the point across: Smoke this stuff, and you're liable to do anything.
Home Vision's DVD release of Grass offers a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with strong Dolby Digital 5.1 audio of the aggressive sound-mix. Features include an interview with director Ron Mann (10 min.), a clever alternate title sequence, the NORML guide to state-by-state marijuana laws, a gallery of 20 High Times magazine covers, and the theatrical trailer. (And find the Easter egg to hear Mann talk about a strange reaction he once had to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon). Keep-case.