Film Review: ‘Evergreen: The Road to Legalization’

Riley Morton's resonant documentary examines two opposing fronts in the battle to decriminalize recreational marijuana use.

Alison Holcomb, Rick Steves, Pete Holmes, John McKay, Steve Sarich, Doug Hiatt.

At first glance, “Evergreen: The Road to Legalization,” a documentary about the passage of a Washington state initiative decriminalizing recreational marijuana use, differs little from countless docus tracing the fates of public referendums on controversial issues like gay marriage (one of which passed on the same ballot). But here the two factions duking it out are both pro-legalization, yet bitterly divided over the compromises that I-502’s supporters felt necessary to include to ensure approval. This dual focus on the need to end the ineffective, destructive “war on drugs” and broader questions of political compromise gives director Riley Morton’s film particular resonance.

Except for a token, not-especially-convincing anti-legalization police officer, the film’s interviewees come down squarely on the side of condemning the war on drugs as inefficient (not having made a dent in trafficking and use), counter-productive (causing the U.S. to boast the world’s highest documented incarceration rate) and racist (blacks having been imprisoned for simple possession in far greater numbers, and with greater severity, than whites). Just about everyone in the film seems to agree on that.

But I-502 replaces possession penalties with more draconian DUI restrictions and sets a limit for blood levels far below normal medicinal dosage, thus seriously impacting medical marijuana users who depend on the drug to function normally, and who comprise a vocal segment of the opposition. And since decriminalization extends only to those over 21, law enforcement’s racist policies could simply switch over to minority teens. Proponents of I-502 applaud it as a big step in the right direction, arguing that adjustments will be made down the road to address inequities.

One of the initiative’s main public selling points lauds the major money-making, tax revenue-producing potential of marijuana in the fiscally strapped state. Morton and writer Nils Cowan interview a couple of suits who are already laying the groundwork for a big-business takeover of the state’s medical marijuana cottage industry, as the proposed measures also outlaw home growing. Medical marijuana users and suppliers strenuously resist the transformation of a friendly local-community venture into an impersonal profit-gouging industry.

The filmmakers trail key supporters and opponents as they collect signatures or stump around the state, either touting or loudly condemning the measure. Advocates, spearheaded by Washington’s ACLU drug-policy director Alison Holcomb and personable travel writer Rick Steves, corral several high-level law-enforcement types to endorse the initiative, and these straight-arrows, along with more laid-back, long-haired reporters and college professors, appear throughout the film in interviews and at rallies. Naysayers, many of whom pioneered pot-legalization efforts in the past, are led by pipe-smoking photog Steve Sarich and impassioned defense attorney Doug Hiatt. Often denied an official voice at gatherings, they try to shout down the well-organized, generously financed I-502 pushers, only to be expelled by police.

Morton and Cowan elucidate the situation from the ground up with considerable clarity, aided by the well-paced editing of Darren Lund and Jason Reid. Lensing by helmer Morton fully exploits the photogenic qualities of both the state and the weed.

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Film Review: 'Evergreen: The Road to Legalization'

Reviewed on DVD, New York, June 11, 2014. Running time: 86 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) A First Run Features release of a Hemlock Prods., Overland Pictures production in association with 2R Prods., Lucid Visual Media, Roped In Prods. Produced by Jason Reid, Nils Cowan, Riley Morton. Executive producer, Andy McDonough. Co-producer, Colin Baxter. Co-executive producer, Adam Brown.

Crew: Directed by Riley Morton. Written by Nils Cowan. Camera (color, HD), Morton; editors, Jason Reid, Darren Lund; music, John E. Low; music supervisor, Adam Brown; sound editor, Reid.

With: Alison Holcomb, Rick Steves, Pete Holmes, John McKay, Steve Sarich, Doug Hiatt.

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