While many cannabis enthusiasts happily anticipate stepping inside the first legal recreational stores next week, they might want to take pause and think about the struggle that got those doors open in the first place. And there is no better tutorial on what went down prior to Washington voters approving 502 than the new documentary “Evergreen.”
In “Evergreen,” filmmakers Riley Morton and Nils Cowan capture the arduous and contentious battle between those on the side of legalization, primarily driven by Washington ACLU’s criminal justice director Alison Holcomb and PBS travel guru Rick Steves, and those opposed to 502, which included a large part of the medical marijuana community. It’s a fantastic view into the many issues behind legal cannabis, including racial stereotyping, the perils of the new DUI laws and how it might affect your favorite MMJ clinic down the street.
Here, Riley and Nils talk to us on the opening day of their documentary in Seattle about making the film and the long road legal cannabis still has ahead.
Tell us a bit about how the idea for the movie came about.
Nils: The idea was Riley’s. We are both freelance producers here in Seattle, and we had just gotten together to share an office space. In the summer of 2011, we started to see these stories about Initiative 502, the new approach they were taking in Washington and the kind of people they had signed on as it got rolling. Riley looked at that and, to his credit, said, “Wow, a former U.S. attorney is leading the legalization effort and an ACLU representative?” These were professional, buttoned-down folks, not the same type of folks who were trying to get decriminalization going in the past. He approached me and said, “Hey, do you want to do a film project? If this gets passed, we have the hold on the story.”
We’re wary in the documentary business entering any long-term project like that, but within a few weeks, we were in 502’s offices pitching them the idea of giving us access to their campaign.
Speaking of access, it seemed pretty unfettered to all the major players, including Rick Steves and Alison Holcomb. Was it difficult to convince anyone to be shadowed to that extent?
Nils: It was pretty difficult. What they were trying to do and the image they had to fastidiously take care of, to allow access to a film crew of two people they didn’t know that well was not a popular idea. But we met with them, said that this could be a historic change and that we wanted to document that change. We told them up front they would have no editorial control. They realized the long-term potential of participating in something like this and agreed to be filmed.
You’ve said that it also helped that the major players were not the stoner stereotypes people might imagine. Do you feel it has helped debunk some stereotypes about marijuana use?
Nils: It’s definitely very clear that this represents the beginning of a culture shift. Maybe that’s a little bit why the “No on 502” folks were so angry. This has been their culture for years and they’ve tried to get initiatives off the ground based on that culture, but when you’re trying to advertise that to masses, forget it. Soccer moms in eastern Washington are not going to go for it if it’s long-haired ex-hippies running the campaign.
Riley: They did an amazing job understanding fundamentally that those folks were going to swing a statewide initiative. Legalization advocates had been somewhat in a Seattle bubble, but the reality was different. The 502 folks did a ton of polling. They really did their homework on something that had a realistic chance of passing.
Did the level of opposition to legalization surprise you?
Nils: Initially, we expected traditional voices like cops, mothers against drunk driving, former law enforcement and so on to be opposed, and we started interviewing them at first. They hadn’t joined any formal “no” campaign and had voiced some opposition.
What did surprise us was when the vocal opposition came from the “No on 502” crowd. They were a small minority and didn’t raise a lot of funds, but because of who they were and that they were so loud and militant—and they had to be because they didn’t have the money or clout—they had to make their voices heard any way possible. It may have done them in, but we both respect them for that and it made good content for the film.
We weren’t even sure we had a film in the can until that Olympia fracas [a film scene shows the two sides colliding in the state capitol building] and thought, “Wow, this is a unique moment in Washington history and national history.”
What were the greatest challenges to filming and telling this story?
Nils: It all directly relates to funding and time. We both have mortgages. I have two kids. Riley has a wife and a lot of obligations. We were pitching HBO, Showtime, Al Jazeera, Current TV, but because there was no guarantee it would pass no one wanted to bite.
We then met some very talented Seattle people in film, Jason Reid, Darren Lund and Adam Brown [the team behind “Sonicsgate: Requiem for a Team”] and they loved the story and wanted to join. We had a lot of difficulties until we met them, but it was then that we had a storytelling and post-production team that could pull this all together. And Andy McDonough of Roped In Productions and Colin Baxter of Mind Vise Entertainment made very timely investments in the film, without which we couldn’t have completed the expensive post process.
With 502 so far, what do you think will happen to the medical clinics?
Nils: I think it’s going to take a while, but they’ll eventually be brought under the recreational system. I think to exist with the tax structure, you know as separate entities, I don’t think that’s going to last. It’s going to take a while. I’d like to see medical survive and be the not heavily regulated side where you can get higher potency strains and specific products.
Why do you think Washington was so complicated vs. Colorado?
Nils: The medical industry here grew almost overnight, just exploded, and without a lot of regulation at all, especially in Seattle and western Washington. In Colorado, it was a 10-year, slow-growth process where people were making decisions together. It was just a better, more established setup that could make the transition a little bit easier.
Do you plan to continue following this story?
Nils: People have asked us that all along. Every time we get together to work on something, we talk about working on another film in this space.
We were recently invited as part of Harvard group to go to Jamaica. I got back two days ago and had gone to cover the very beginning of their decriminalization initiative, which will most likely become a legalization initiative. Big business interests are mostly driving the discussion there right now, but we spent time with most of the smaller fish, like Rasta growers.
I hope they can band together, stop sounding angry and establish exactly what their game plain is and unite to change the course of history. Here, the “No on 502” people had too many separate messages and not enough fund-raising. In Jamaica, I see some potential for disparate groups to unite and change the conversation, rather than big business coming in and controlling the Jamaican weed trade. We’re trying to get a film off the ground covering that issue. Hope remains.
“Evergreen” is playing at SIFF June 27-July 3, with several screenings daily. Visit the SIFF website for times. ACLU rep and key player in the passage of 502 attorney Alison Holcomb will do a special Q&A after Saturday’s 4:30 screening. See the film’s trailer below: