In 2022, upwards of 150 million Americans live in a state with legal access to recreational cannabis, and most live where some form has been legalized for medicinal use. Despite ever-increasing accessibility, innovations and legislation changes, many Americans still don’t understand how cannabis works, its interactions with our bodies’ systems and how its “illegal” status is weaponized against vulnerable, often BIPOC communities.
Streaming on PBS, award-winning documentarian Sarah Holt’s latest film, “The Cannabis Question” seeks to fill in some of these gaps, while recognizing how much more work there is to do to understand this plant and rectify the harms it’s caused. The San Francisco Chronicle sat down with Holt to discuss her film and how it came together against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic.
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As an investigative filmmaker, you have previously made films on topics such as extinction, Darwinism, evolution, COVID-19, and addiction, to name a few. How did you decide to make a film about cannabis, and why now?
I would say it was when I was working on a film called “Addiction,” where I was investigating the opioid crisis. We’re spending $47 billion a year on the War on Drugs, and when I would talk to experts, everyone was in agreement that the War on Drugs was failing and people should be getting evidence-based treatment, not being imprisoned. I was amazed to learn that one of the number one reasons for being arrested in this country is drug possession, and cannabis arrests are an extremely high number of those.
As I began to realize how many people in America are turning to cannabis, it would be important to do a film and really try to explore the latest science on cannabis and try to give people really solid information, because it’s a very polarizing topic. There are groups of people that think it’s the devil’s grass, and there are people that think it’s this panacea that can cure everything. So that was kind of the motivation to make this film.
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This film, as others have, covers the debate around cannabis’ efficacy for treating symptoms of mental and physical conditions, but also the social and political dimensions that have really just begun to get the comprehensive coverage they deserve. How do you see all these issues as related, if you do?
It’s a complicated subject. I watched hundreds of films on cannabis and thought, ‘oh, dear, this film has been made a thousand times.’ Then I began to realize, no one’s really looked at the science of cannabis. No one’s ever delved into the whole endocannabinoid system and how we make our own cannabis-like molecules. There actually is pretty exciting research going on, and if not for the pandemic, we would have had clinical trials that would have had conclusions.
Shawn’s story, (the veteran with PTSD) was a story that could show the issues around cannabis and racism. He was an Iraqi war, decorated Purple Heart veteran who has a medical cannabis card. He’s arrested for a third of an ounce of medical cannabis and ends up being sentenced to five years in prison. We slowly contacted a group called Alabama Appleseed who was advocating on his behalf, and when Shawn was released from prison, they allowed us to come and film. I thought it was a really strong story to show how the War on Drugs was not keeping people safer or healthier.
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What did this film teach you about cannabis and its role and place in our society?
It’s an incredibly complex plant; it’s got over 400 chemicals. People will say to me, ‘is cannabis good or bad?’ How do you answer that question? It depends on how much you use, when you use it, and what you’re using it for. It may be beneficial for some people and harmful for others.
This [endocannabinoid] system can be a source of new medicines, a source of helping us figure out how to treat new diseases. Cannabis may be a way to harness the system, but it’s always complicated. It seems to me that one of the messages that I kept hearing was understanding when you should use it in a medicinal way.
Cannabis is California’s biggest cash crop. It’s one of the nation’s fastest-growing industries. So cannabis, as Stacy Gruber said [in the film], ‘it’s like rock ‘n’ roll; it’s here to stay.’ You can only do so much in 52 minutes, so it’s this dance to try to help people understand. It’s not black and white, and we are learning.
Despite its growing accessibility, cannabis is still personal, and attitudes vary from person to person. Who is this film for? What do you hope they take away from it?
I’m hoping we’ll reach people of different ages and different backgrounds, but I think that as cannabis becomes legal and more socially accepted, you’re seeing that most Americans now live in states where cannabis is legal.
I hope if anyone comes away from this film, they’ll have an appreciation for the [endocannabinoid] system. I didn’t know it existed, I had no idea we made our own cannabis-like molecules or that THC mimics those molecules. When you begin to look at the system of receptors of enzymes and endocannabinoids, we have receptors that are named after cannabis on every organ in our body. It is this master regulatory system that regulates mood, sleep, emotion, cognition, and appetite. Its whole purpose is homeostasis, and it’s one of the most important regulatory systems most people have never heard of. So what I hoped is that what people would realize is that when you use cannabis, you are activating this very powerful system. And this system changes over our lifespan.
How do you see this film contributing to the global conversation around cannabis?
If it hadn’t been for COVID, we were going to do a shoot in Uruguay, which is one of the first countries in the world that legalized cannabis. Canada is two years ahead of the U.S., and Israel is able to do far more research than our scientists because they don’t have the crazy laws that we have in the U.S.. I don’t know how other countries would look at this film, because most countries don’t have the harsh laws that we have for cannabis users, so research may even be further along in some of those countries than it is here. Certainly, some of the work on the endocannabinoid system is of interest to everybody.
My take-home point from this was that I thought, by the end of the film, I might have very clear ideas. And what I realized was just how complicated it is. Cannabis wasn’t one thing and that you know, you can look at it from so many different levels, and in some places, you could see how it could be very beneficial.
Amelia Williams is a freelance writer.