When Washington and Colorado voted in 2012 to approve statewide recreational marijuana use, the news made international headlines and prompted fiery debates about state laws at odds with the federal government.
At the crux of both states’ legalization campaigns were arguments that took a page out of the anti-Prohibition textbooks: heightened civil liberties, an alternative to the war on drugs and an undercutting of a pot-centric black market. Often overshadowed in the national eye, however, were the viewpoints of cannabis advocates who opposed the very initiatives that sought to make marijuana legal, regulated and taxable.
Riley Morton and Nils Cowan’s documentary “Evergreen: The Road to Legalization” — which opens June 20 at the Sie Film Center for a limited run — lends a voice to those individuals and gives an engrossing behind-the-scenes look at how Washington state went from a politically polarized battleground to be one of the first states to pave the way for drug reform in the U.S.
“Evergreen” avoids the generic viewpoints of hippie proponents and right-leaning detractors that have become caricatures of marijuana debates over the years, and delves instead into the intricacies of why the New Approach Washington-led Initiative 502 pitted some pot supporters against each other.
At the outset of the documentary, more than 300 days before the 2012 election, the forces behind I-502 promise to curtail simple, nonviolent marijuana arrests. What sounds like an appetizing citizen initiative is quickly opposed by a swath of former cannabis champions who find holes in what they called a poorly written proposal.
“They’re spending millions of dollars on a legalization campaign that isn’t a legalization campaign,” says Douglas Hiatt, a public defender featured in the film.
Two major differences between Washington’s legalization initiative and Colorado’s were that I-502 wooed conservative voters by putting a nanogram cap on medicated or high drivers (similar to a blood-alcohol-content restriction on drunk drivers) and by saying no to grow houses.
“Evergreen” weaves the 2012 narrative together with an assemblage of clips, which range from shots of campaign headquarters and city tours, to Seattle’s Hempfest and pot dispensaries, to free-speech events and DEA bust footage. In conjunction with sharp editing and pacing, montages and interviews allow the nearly 90-minute film to roll seamlessly.
Major players featured in the film include I-502’s campaign director, Alison Holcomb, and well-known travel writer and sponsor Rick Steves. On the flip side are I-502 opponents Hiatt and medical marijuana advocate Steve Sarich. Morton and Cowan, more often than not, do a good job of making initiative pushback look professional rather than petty by evoking thoughtful responses from principal interviewees on both sides.
“Evergreen” builds like a slow, soft crescendo, captivating with its sense of faux suspense (we already know how this ends) and ability to capture the drama of the issues at hand. Portraying emotion and devil’s advocacy are this balanced film’s strong suits.
The doc’s main drawback (a little one, at that) is rooted in the redundancy of its subjects’ arguments. Although the film presents triumph in a fair, respectful way, the tirades against driving under the influence and smokescreens can be tiring. Also, the picture painted here is not altogether complete, as “Evergreen’s” timing might feel belated and its conclusions shallow — pot-shop battles continue to rage in various forms in Colorado and Washington. Arguably the film’s most interesting, albeit tangential, interview is a drug dealer who offers insight that could have used a touch more light.
But deft post-production work and a solid breakdown of statistics stitched throughout prove that “Evergreen” accomplished its goals: to show how other states can reform their drug policies (or how not to) and how complex Americans’ stances on marijuana prohibition have become.
Sean Fitz-Gerald: 303-954-1211, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/srkfitzgerald