We’ve come a long way since Reefer Madness told us that marijuana was the devil’s lettuce responsible for insanity, theft, and murder. It turns out there is a whole world of independent filmmaking totally devoted to uprooting the stigma that prohibitionist propaganda has unfairly entangled with cannabis. Film festivals featuring cannabis-themed art are celebrating weed through film in New York, Colorado, in northern and southern California. The New York City Cannabis Film Festival has been running for 4 years. The Colorado International Cannabis & Hemp Film Festival just completed its first season. San Francisco has been the host city of the Cannabis Film Festival for the past 3 years. In southern California, the Palm Springs Cannabis Film Festival just closed its premier season in April 2018.
The unapologetic tribute to weed in the independent film industry isn’t surprising. Cannabis culture has transcended decades of prohibition and fused itself into the mainstream through music, film, health, and politics. Since art is an interpretation of reality, it makes sense that independent filmmakers would explore this crucial period in history. For the first time, entire nations are acknowledging the therapeutic benefits of cannabis through legalization. While it has some ways to go, pot has shed layers of ignorance and stigma from its brand, and the merchants of culture—filmmakers, musicians, artists—are largely responsible for the attitudinal shifts that have resulted in the legalization of cannabis in over half of the United States and in several nations around the world.
Here are some of the best modern independent cannabis films doing their part to further the conversation—by making us laugh, scratch our heads, or even cry—about pot’s place in our culture.
Welcome to the Willits (2017)
In this bizarre and comical horror fantasy directed by Trevor Ryan, traveling teens make their way to Northern California’s town of Willits, a hub for pot growers, meth addicts, and other unorthodox figures. One of the strangest of these is a marijuana grower who also happens to believe that he is being targeted by aliens. Unfortunately for the teenagers at the center of the film, it is on this man’s property that they decide to set up camp. The consequences are bloody, comical, and wild.
Dark Harvest (2017)
Replete with human-targeted bear traps and grisly murders, James Hutson’s suspense thriller follows a dramatic world of black market weed. A grower loses everything to a mysterious aggressor, a cop is framed for murder, and the two unlikely allies must work together to figure out who is behind the assault on their lives. Another reason to watch this film is that it marks Cheech Marin’s return to the big screen after a 34-year hiatus.
A Midwestern Methamphetamine Fairytale (2017)
This short film by Sean Martinez shows the heartbreak children exposed to addiction and violence must live with and the resilience that develops out of that pain. Chloe has spent her entire young life in her mother’s world—a world dominated by addiction and manipulation. To survive, Chloe imagines a fantasy world where her mother is the queen to her princess. The film makes one thing clear—life is as simple as a mother’s relationship with her daughter; that is to say, it gets complicated.
Milk and Cookies (2017)
Another short by Syd and Mike, this hilarious film follows the two self-playing directors as they embark on an edibles conquest of mystic proportions. There is only one rule they must follow—and in an intense state of cookie-induced high, they break it. The ramifications of that mistake are… transformative. If you can get through this 9-minute gem without laughing out loud, you’re probably asleep.
Lifers Madness the Movie (2017)
In the early 90’s, three-strikes sentencing laws began revolutionizing drug enforcement in ways that did nothing to disempower the black market but everything to destroy individuals. Under those laws, convicted felons of a serious violent felony are automatically sentenced to life imprisonment if they receive or have received two more convictions. This law has landed thousands of non-violent offenders in prison to serve life sentences. Jeff Eichen’s 6 part docu-series calls this phenomenon “lifers madness” and explores the devastation the war on drugs has wrought upon families and communities. The film features spokespeople from Drug Policy Alliance, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), and other experts on cannabis law. It provides a platform for former and current convicts and their families to discuss the way that cannabis prohibition has impacted their lives.
This free film by Karla Denny and Damon McDonald examines the medical cannabis laws in Australia and sheds light on some frustrating realities Australian patients and their families deal with on a daily basis. As they currently stand, regulations make it extremely difficult for patients to access and use the medicine that they need. As a result, desperate parents and caretakers take measures into their own hands to access cannabis through illegal measures. The consequences for this activity can be dire. Caregivers have been charged with serious crimes for doing what they believe they must to save their children and patients. The filmmakers present the story through the eyes of the caretakers making for an emotional but important journey for the audience.
A Day with Miguel Lopez (2018)
Miguel Lopez, the founder of the Denver 420 Rally, talks about the conflation of racism toward people of Mexican descent and cannabis stigma. He makes it very clear that while the legalization of cannabis is a positive move, progress can only be measured by the inclusion of people of color as policy decisions are developed. This film isn’t fancy—it is mostly Lopez speaking directly into what appears to be a low to average quality camera. However, the content of Lopez’s monologue is important and deserves a serious listen.
Game On (2018)
In this coming of age comedy by Phillip Sebal and Shariya Lynn, three friends (sometimes frenemies) run a game store that becomes more than just a place of work for the three employees. When they find out that the owner of the retail space is going to sell the business, the friends come together to fundraise the money they need to keep their refuge open. But when part of that fundraising strategy is to put up an illegal billboard offering free drugs with every purchase, it becomes clear that saving the store is not going to be so straightforward.