A serious-minded two-hour documentary consisting of wall-to-wall talking heads isn’t the typical definition of stoner cinema, but “The Culture High” has a sincere aim to impact the ongoing debate over marijuana legalization. Unfortunately, the film’s haphazard structure and freewheeling arguments only serve to reinforce tired pothead cliches — it’s paranoid, prone to starry-eyed dorm-room philosophizing, and it doesn’t know when to quit. Director Brett Harvey previously delved into the topic in his 2007 debut, “The Union: The Business Behind Getting High,” and that pic’s cult fanbase should spark to this long-winded but ultimately optimistic follow-up. But without a more rigorous edit, any chances of breaking out to a wider audience in an Oct. 17 VOD release will quickly go up in smoke.
Harvey and co-writer Michael Bobroff appear to view weed as a jumping-off point to discuss, well, just about anything. Militarized police, the proliferation of prescription drugs, a complacent news media, lobbying as a form of tacit bribery, the NSA’s snooping on U.S. citizens, and prisons run for profit are just a few of the numerous subjects touched on at some point during “The Culture High,” as the film leaps from topic to topic like a particularly ADD member of the debate club. Everything is meant to fall under the general umbrella of what stands in the way of legalizing marijuana, even for medicinal use, but not all the dots connect quite so cleanly, and most of the talking points won’t surprise anyone with cursory knowledge of any given subject.
Given that the film is little more than a long series of soundbites, audience interest will fluctuate wildly depending on whoever happens to be onscreen at the moment. The scores of talking heads range from insightful (former Baltimore police detective and “The Wire” co-creator Ed Burns) to kooky (author Howard Bloom) to totally far out (charming former international pot smuggler Howard Marks), with a few gratuitous celebs (Snoop Dogg, Richard Branson, rant-happy comedian Joe Rogan) on hand simply to lend name value to the promotional campaign. No matter who’s speaking, Harvey and editor Stephen Green have an annoying habit of illustrating their observations with thuddingly obvious archival and stock footage that’s frequently downright cheesy.
Slightly more effective but no less shameless are the handful of horror stories from people whose lives have become collateral damage in the war on drugs. Harvey opens with footage of a Missouri SWAT team raiding a home and killing a family’s dog in a bust that ultimately resulted in a $300 fine. Later comes the story of a young man who suffered from a rare food allergy and died in prison after being jailed for failing to appear in court on a misdemeanor charge for pot possession. And substantial time is devoted to the tearjerking tale of Jason David and his young son Jayden, who suffered debilitating seizures from a very young age and found relief only through medical cannabis.
Politically, the pic initially lays the blame exclusively on conservatives — singling out Richard Nixon, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush and even Mitt Romney for scorn with vintage clips — but eventually works its way around to criticizing President Obama’s brashly political appointment of Michele Leonhart as head of the DEA, and the administration’s crackdown on medical marijuana. Bill Clinton is also admonished for coming out in favor of legalizing marijuana only after leaving office. In contrast with many contemporary docs, the goal here isn’t to divide viewers down partisan lines, but to unite them with a common-sense approach to solving the ongoing problems of the drug war.
To that end, instead of building what’s become a commonplace argument against the folly of marijuana prohibition, perhaps more time would have been warranted exploring the ways in which the discussion has progressed in recent years. It’s not until the film’s final minutes that marijuana legalization in both Washington and Colorado earns a mention, while continued changes in popular opinion and promising political momentum go largely unexplored. Then again, Harvey doesn’t hide his intentions to motivate viewers to keep fighting for a change in drug laws rather than giving them permission to sit back and assume everything will work itself out.
Still, “The Culture High” doesn’t feel rousing so much as redundant, especially when Rogan points out the “constant stream of books, documentaries, blog posts and podcasts” advocating for legalization. As the pic’s experts almost unanimously agree, change will come. And when it does, there won’t be any need for docs like this.