If you live in a state without access to recreational cannabis (and you’re reading this story) you’re probably furious about America’s patchwork laws that has made it possible to buy and sell cannabis in one state while it can still get you arrested in another...to say nothing of your limited access to safe, lab-tested cannabis.
Yet for those of us who remain under the thumb of prohibition in the United States, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. The new documentary film Green Light tells the story of Australia’s disastrous marijuana policies, and the effect that this lack of access to medical cannabis has had on individuals in desperate need of relief.
As the film makes clear, however, this lack of pragmatism - and, frankly, cruelty - on behalf of the Australian government, and its Trumpian prime minister Scott Morrison has only made cannabis advocates fight even harder, even when doing so runs the risk of incarceration.
The film, which was directed by the veteran Australian filmmaker Ned Donohoe, follows two influential figures in Australia’s underground medical marijuana community. The two men, identified only by their first names - Luke and Nick - live in an unspecified part of the country, living an otherwise bucolic back-to-nature lifestyle in the middle of a lush forest.
Luke and Nick leave their homes often, however, to deliver cannabis to countless Australians in need of relief in rural and urban settings alike. Much of the film captures Luke and Nick’s interactions with these patients, who suffer from a wide range of conditions and ailments, from enormous tumors to anxiety and a degenerative bone condition.
These are people that, as immediately becomes evident, aren’t looking to get high for fun; their lives are on the line. Luke and Nick’s work is a direct response to Australia’s extremely conservative and prohibitive policies around medical cannabis (to say nothing of a federal recreational market).
Although medicinal cannabis was technically legalized at the federal level in 2016 - and a recreational market became legal in Sydney this September - the reality is dire; according to Donohoe, at the time that Green Light was filmed, only 500 people in the entire country had legal access to medical cannabis. He estimates that at least 100,000 Australians are accessing black-market services like those offered by Luke and Nick (although he suggests, the figure could easily be double that).
On a recent phone call from Australia, where he was headed directly towards the enormous forest fires that have recently engulfed the eastern region of the country (which, for the record, Morrison has refused to link to climate change), Donohoe explained that the primary challenge of the project was combatting Luke and Nick’s (much-warranted) paranoia about being filmed engaging in criminal activity. Donohoe spent over a year chatting with the two men before they agreed to be filmed; once Donohoe finally met up with them, he still found himself walking a delicate tightrope.
“Obviously as the director, I want all access I can get, but I need to respect that I have a lot less to lose [than Luke and Nick],” he told me. “I was constantly dancing between wanting to get the word out and also considering the reality that this could [get them in jail]. There was a lot of pressure on them from their wives and family.”
“One day they’d be joyous, the next they’d be having panic attacks,” Donohoe added. “Ultimately we went back to the ‘why’ of we were doing the film, which kept them grounded. It got to a point we were so close and comfortable with each other that I wasn’t stepping on eggshells [around them].”
The film’s subtle electronic musical score, by the composer James Orr, emphasizes Luke and Nick’s anxieties and consuming fear of arrest. “Especially when they’re driving around [in the film], I wanted the audience - without being too on the nose - to be constantly uneasy, [which is what] they experience every day,” Donohoe explained.
While electronic music and cannabis culture aren’t exactly an odd couple, Donohoe explicitly sought to avoid using the classic rock and psych music often associated with pot-friendly films. “I didn’t want to make anything recalling stoner culture, that’s not what this is,” he said. Indeed, Green Light is a far cry from most films that celebrate cannabis.
At its heart, it’s largely about the trust that Luke and Nick have in each other, and their commitment to their work. Donohoe explained that he was particularly moved by Luke’s passion for helping others, especially after Luke recounted (on camera) his own harrowing experiences of self-destruction.
“After knowing the checkered past Luke went through, with that context in mind and seeing the work he does day in and day out, it showcases the ability of humans for compassion. It’s not rational what he’s doing,” Donohoe said.
Green Light was released in Australia a month ago, and has been screened a couple of dozen times in the country. While Donohoe ceded that the film has yet to enact concrete change among politicians, it has nonetheless strengthened resolve among the country’s medical marijuana supporters, and taught Australians about the reality of the crisis.
“From the grassroots level, it re-energizes people to talk to their local government and put [medical marijuana] front and center,” he said. People had no idea [how many Australians access] the black market.” As for Luke and Nick themselves, Donohoe said that they’re starting to get recognized more at home, but “in terms of the police knocking on their door, that hasn't happened; at least, not yet. “People constantly ask whether they’re worried,” Donohoe said.
His response is simple: “Yes they are.” But has that fear stood in the way of their efforts to help save the lives of countless individuals that the Australian government has dismissed? Not for a second. Green Light is currently available to preorder on Vimeo On Demand, and will be released 12/17. You can find a link to the film here, and learn more about the film on its website.