TCM (Turner Classic Movies) has been showing old educational propaganda films late Friday nights/early Saturday morning between 5 and 6 a.m. as part of their Underground show. Unfortunately since its Oscar season TCM is exclusively showing Academy recognized films the whole month – nary an institutional short film to be found. I am never up at 5:30 in the morning anymore. However, given the technological advancements of the last few years I have a digital recorder and end up with a variety of these films. Occasionally I watch them, usually having many on standby for when I’m in the mood for this kind of nonsense.
One I watched tonight with my girlfriend is from the ‘60s and is called Keep off the Grass: a film made in cooperation with the San Diego Police Department-a surefire way to obtain objective information and sentiments. The story is about Tom, a preppy, white suburban kid whose parents find his dope stash. The film begins with a close-up on a copy of Cream’s Disraeli Gears and pulls back to Tom’s mother vacuuming. She knocks over something on his bookshelf and finds pot – the devil’s drug. After a discussion with his father, who is actually quite calm about the issue, Tom explores the pros and cons about marijuana. Ending up with his pothead friend Tom ends up at a college pot party, a head shop, an artist named Waco’s house (where the artist’s brother-in-law is arrested for grass), at another pot party, and finally he’s mugged by drunks at the end (evident by the rolling beer car the goons throw before taking Tom’s wallet). Tom is also almost in a car accident and witnesses his friend selling a joint to a 12 year old. Eventually Tom ends up deciding pot is not for him, telling his father about his decision.
While the attitude towards pot is not presented in a completely negative fashion, Keep off the Grass is obviously an anti-marijuana film (the name says it all). The attitude the adults demonstrate, especially towards Tom’s investigation, is calm and helpful; they are civil and friendly, not curt and condescending. The potheads are presented as mostly lazy and self absorbed heels. The film presents an obvious slant towards establishment forces, presenting them benevolently. Given the events of the ‘60s I have difficulty believing the general institutional attitude towards marijuana was benign – Reagan dropping teargas on student protestors with National Guard forces blocking all the exits with force and said, “A hippie is someone who looks like Tarzan, walks like Jane, and smells like Cheetah.”
Regardless of the film’s non-threatening approach to marijuana it does not attempt an objective approach. None of the statistics are backed by a proper citation and many are worded in a misleading manner (“95% of heroin users started with marijuana”). Their main arguments are that dope is mentally addictive, decreases motivation, impairs judgment, hurt coordination, makes one laugh hysterically, makes them believe they are more creative than they actually are, and can lead to dealing and heavier drugs. We will go through these arguments one by one. Although I do not have any actual sources to cite, but I have read a few books on marijuana, watched a handful of documentaries (both pro and con), and have some past firsthand experience.
- Marijuana is mentally addictive: Yes, and so is alcohol, video games, every other drug, cigarettes, food, soda, exercise, television, masturbation, and many other things. Obviously this one instance influences the other points but it is not the kind of argument that really holds any water since many things are mentally addictive.
- Marijuana decreases motivation: At times it can, but it all depends on the amount smoked, what kind, and many other factors. I have done some very productive things stoned before (play music, write pretty decent material, gone out and had a good time, etc.). However, so many other activities decrease motivation – watching television, children, and lackluster jobs – and they are legal.
- Marijuana hurts coordination: Sometimes, but so does alcohol. Although I have rarely done it and do not condone it, I know many people who drive efficiently stoned. It is probably not a good idea. In the film Tom’s friend runs a stop sign, almost causing an accident, and shows no regard for Tom’s concern. This is not the sign of a pothead but an asshole.
- Marijuana makes one laugh hysterically: Yes, but usually at something. Although a stoned individual seems like they are laughing at nothing, there is usually a reason even if not evident on the surface. Marijuana can spark an internal dialogue; sometimes people have interesting and funny conversations or maybe it is something on television or in a book. It depends on your position but marijuana can make bad shows and movies better and can do the same with music. I doubt I would enjoy Billy Madison or Cool as Ice without pot but I loved those movies when I watched them years ago – and I was stoned. This portion of pot is subjective and varies from each individual.
- Marijuana makes one more creative than they actually are: Yes, but this happens all the time with sober people. Bad artists are bad artists; marijuana does not really make a difference. I’ve met many great artists who smoke weed and many more bad ones. Naturally I have had the same experience with people who drink or abstain from substances. I really doubt ill placed ego has any relation to pot.
- Marijuana leads to dealing and heavier drugs: I think this applies to just about anything although that is probably a bad answer. I smoked pot for years and never dealt. Considering the advancements in the marijuana industry over the last few decades, drug dealing, especially in California has changed. Pot dispensaries pay both federal and state taxes in the millions, if not billions, every year and dealers have changed their business models. Humboldt County in Northern California pretty much exists solely on marijuana; it is their number one cash crop. Of course there are problems but it is meager.
Crime in Amsterdam is relatively low in relation to marijuana (at least when I read that Culture Shock travel book a few years ago before I abandoned by plans to travel there) and it is legal – albeit with restrictions. The drug problems in Amsterdam, as with Humboldt County, come from heavier drugs, especially crystal methamphetamine in California. Like in the film Winter’s Bone, the rural pot growers generally avoided trouble when they stuck to pot but landed in trouble when they started cooking meth. Most people who become drug dealers do not enter the game because they enjoy getting people high but because it is profitable and tax free.
Saying pot leads to heavier drugs does have some validity since marijuana is not addictive, is cheap, and many people smoke it. However, I believe this has more to do with the individual than the drug itself. From personal experience I can say I liked pot more than drinking, especially since pot was cheaper and did not cause a hangover. I did not have any physical or mental hang-ups when I stopped smoking pot or drinking and have fond memories of smoking pot. This is naturally an individual story but I never started shooting heroin or smoking crack because I smoked pot before. I have known pot smokers who never smoked anything else and others who are now dead from drugs, indicating it depends on the individual and their collected experiences, influencing their behavior and outlook.
Of course a great deal of these answers are based on my opinion and personal experiences, which vary heavily from others, but the arguments presented in Keep off the Grass are also very reliant on subjectivity along with false information and hearsay. I saw very few actions done by potheads I have never seen by sober people who are just assholes. I was personally for Proposition 19 in California, hoping marijuana’s legalization would create national debate on a sound marijuana policy; if not full legalization at least decriminalization or majorly lax regulations (like exist with alcohol with tighter control for tax purposes). When I viewed CNN’s county map on election night 2010 and saw most of the counties responsible for voting down legalizing marijuana were heavy growing areas, indicating these growers make more money off marijuana’s prohibition by selling to traffickers from other states. Plus, given pot’s legal status it has not fallen into the clutches of big business, where additives would surely enter the product. In fact, much of the marijuana grown domestically is quite free of unsafe chemicals or additives. Eric Schlosser’s book Reefer Madness claims the American government sprays marijuana plants in Mexico with chemicals (primarily DDT) routinely, which is interesting since one of the arguments in Keep off the Grass claims pot has dangerous additives…which are supplied by our government. Schlosser also indicates the majority of America’s marijuana is grown domestically in places like Tennessee, Kentucky, California, Alaska, and other such states; places where the government does not spray deadly chemical and the inclusion of such ingredients varies from grower to grower. However, I was reading in Business Week recently about a grower in Northern California that claims he and other growers in the Pot Triangle rarely add anything to their plants, creating a primarily natural product. Interesting.
Keep off the Grass did mention the studies on marijuana were still not conclusive. In 1972 a Nixon requested report titled Marijuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding suggested decimalizations of marijuana, which was ignored. Keep off the Grass appeared, probably in public school classrooms, in 1969 and expressed the “establishment” attitude towards marijuana. The end of the film argues, “We have enough hang-ups with alcohol and cigarettes,” and we should not add another to the mix – not exactly a hearty argument against pot but a sound argument against the current status of alcohol and cigarettes. The late comedian Bill Hicks believes the easy availability of smokes and booze, “the two drugs that do absolutely nothing for you,” is counterproductive to America as a nation, contributing to our anxieties and issues. Maybe he was right.
The best part of Keep off the Grass, aside from the straw man argument and bad narration that covers up the shoddy acting, is the styles and representations of ‘60s culture, seen through the lenses of the “Greatest Generation.” Supposedly white, suburban males enjoy selling drug to kids, want to drop out of mainstream culture, and listen to sitar music regularly. I know Ravi Shankar was popular in the ‘60s, especially because of The Beatles, but I don’t remember finding any sitar albums in my family’s record collection. Beginning the film on a Cream record indicates what the film believes is subversive counterculture: bands like Cream, artists defying the mainstream, inventive authors, and so forth. Although their experiments in different mediums were potentially groundbreaking they were also a part of mainstream culture, regardless of what many like to believe. Sure, bands like Cream were different from Frank Sinatra and Doris Day, but their records were released by major record labels and distributed and promoted by people engaging in capitalism and consumerism. Instead of just a cultural revolution, this also represents a changing in the guard, where a new group of people carve their space in a capitalism marketplace. Last time I checked The Beatles were not creating a real revolution like Bolsheviks; instead laughing all the way to the band, even if they did buy their own counterculture propaganda.
I did like the fashions, especially Tom’s – consisting of a v-neck sweater and collar shirt. I like dressing in nice clothes and even though I cannot pull off Tom’s look, I do enjoy wearing nice things. Does that make me a “square?” I do not really think so. I wish people still cared about their appearance and believe other factors aside from marijuana contribute to the decline of Western civilization. Of course I do not believe dressing down is responsible for America’s decline (instead I blame greedy people and complacency) but I do not trust my future to somebody in sweatpants and a faded Green Lantern shirt. Does that make me conceded or arrogant? It is possible, but I fail to believe wearing good clothes is a sign of arrogance. It takes more than a pair of nice clothes to tarnish somebody’s reputation.
I am sure there is much more I can say about Keep off the Grass but I am already four pages into an essay about a 20 minute film. I suggest judging for yourself regarding dope and avoid accepting any information from films like this. Remember, this is the same decade that provided films about masturbating causing blindness and their word is suspect. Schlosser’s Reefer Madness is a good place to start, as is the documentary Grass, narrated by Woody Harrelson. However, if you would like to witness this old propaganda film the film and link is below.