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Free Marijuana! (Movie)

By Lauri Apple in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 13, 2008 7:05PM

highchicagoblogpostdn4.jpg With a couple of endless wars abroad to discuss, a defenestration-inspiring economy freaking us out and so many dreamboaty candidates and First Spouses to drool over, the War on Drugs -- arguably the nation's longest endless war ever -- didn't receive much spotlight time this election season. But while we were hearing about Sarah Palin’s fancywear and debating the long-ago bombing habits of Bill Ayers, tens of thousands of people ended up spending part of the campaign behind bars for committing nonviolent drug offenses. According to NORML, in 2007 arrests for marijuana violations alone reached 872,721 – about 100 people per hour, an all-time high (no pun intended). Expect 2008 stats to surpass that figure. Oh, and almost 90% of those 2007 arrests were for possession only. "Cha-ching!" says Mr. Cash Register to Mr. Prison-Industrial Complex.

Eager to draw attention to the government’s continuing and costly obsession with persecuting doobie-doers, Youngstown, OH-based John Holowach set about making and directing HIGH: The True Tale of American Marijuana, which explores the history and impact of our War on Drugs. Tonight HIGH premieres at Columbia College Chicago’s Film Row Cinema, 1109 S. Wabash (at 11th St.) at 7:30 p.m. The film will also be released on November 18 on DVD nationwide on Amazon, Netflix, Hollywood Video and other independent chains. Recently we spoke with Holowach about his film.

Chicagoist: What led you to focus on the War on Drugs as a documentary subject? Was it something you experienced or learned about around the time you started working on the film two-and-a-half years ago?

John Holowach: Actually, it was long before that -- when I was in high school. I may not have wanted to make a movie then, but my opinion of the War on Drugs changed during that period. I took part in a debate class in which the chosen topic was marijuana legalization. Liking a challenge, I took the affirmative position, and took to the task of beating my opponent. I figured it would be quite difficult to argue that such a supposedly dangerous drug should be legalized, but it really wasn't. Science was with me. Public policy experiments in other countries were with me as well. The government, which was supposed to tell me the truth, lied to me. When I discovered what a sham the entire thing was, it crumbled in front of me, and I set about knocking down the other walls with friends and family. Soon, pretty much everyone I knew was agreeing with my position, because I just overwhelmed them with the facts.

Oh, and I won the debate.

C: How is this documentary different from other films that explore the War on Drugs -- for instance, Kevin Booth's American Drug War?

JH: I think it's really great that there are more serious examinations of the War on Drugs coming out, like Booth's film -- which I have yet to see, unfortunately. Sadly, there are still a lot of “stoner docs” out there, which really only talk for an hour about how great pot is and how hemp jeans are going to save the planet, followed by ten minutes of flashing colored lights and pulsing music. My film is nowhere near that. It's thoroughly researched, takes the subject matter seriously, and means to help people see what wasn't there before.

This isn't to say it's dry. As with life, you have to have a sense of humor. Sometimes laughing is the only thing you can do, in fact. Just ask some of the pain patients from the film -- the ones you still can, anyway.

C: You emphasize your use of scientific studies and government survey data in conducting your research. Did you have any experts help you? Who were they? How did you cross paths?

JH: Research abounds through the Internets. And the work of the people such as economist Jeffrey Miron, whom I interviewed for the film, was invaluable. I really owe a debt to everyone who has produced a paper about drugs over the past 100 years. I must especially give thanks to the many government commissions which were set up by both the American and Canadian governments to study pot, none of which recommended keeping it illegal (which is, of course, why they were ignored).

C: How did you turn your "huge database of information" into an argument that could be presented in a 90-minute film?

JH: I didn't at first. Originally, the film was three hours long. When I realized that this was untenable, I decided to really focus on the important points: What was extraneous? What was interesting but didn't really add to the overall message of the film? It took quite a while for me (with the help of my producer and some editors) to trim it down to the 90-minute core you see today. Overall it's a better film because of it.

C: What's something that ended up on the cutting floor that you wish hadn't?

JH: The segment with Straight Inc. included an addendum about one of the main funders and co-founders of the program, a mall magnate named Mel Sembler, whose power and influence in Washington got him assigned as an ambassador to Italy, and made him the only ambassador in history to have an embassy building named after him.

Unfortunately, it seemed to drift a little far from the overall theme of the film, and ended up on the cutting room floor.

What do you think of Cindy McCain getting a break from the feds in the 1990s for her own drug-related indiscretions?

C: I'm glad she got the help she needed, and I'm glad she didn't suffer jail for her addiction, but why should she be the only one?

JH: It's par for the course. Those in power always go, “Do as I say, not as I do.” There are countless examples of children and spouses of politicians and policymakers getting a free pass just because of the influence their parents or partners have. The War on Drugs, and the legal system engulfing it, is one of the most corrupt enterprises in existence today. As I said in the film, an FBI study found that half of all police corruption cases involved drugs. Why? Because it's the easiest system to abuse.
I guess justice isn't “above the influence,” is it?

C: How did you fund your film?

JH: My producer Bob Schubring was the source of funding for the entire venture. A longtime opponent of the War on Drugs, he responded to a posting about it I made on IMDb Pro and we began our production relationship from there. I owe this film and my career to him.
My distributor Terra Entertainment, who pulled me from starving artist status to a-bit-hungry artist status, also deserves a great deal of credit for distributing a film that so many others were afraid to touch.

C: Whose story do you think is most tragic?

JH: Dr. Paul Heberle and his pain patients, most certainly. He lost a year of his life, his house, his practice, and went a $250,000 in debt in legal expenses fighting ridiculous charges [for over-prescribing controlled substances; Heberle apparently was again arrested this week on new charges]. And who suffered besides? His patients. All for nothing.

I'll repeat that: for nothing.

About a year after I completed the film, an older cut was being screened at Ohio State, and I invited them to come over from Pennsylvania to watch. So the lot of them piled into vans and drove. One of the patients I interviewed was on new medication –- an anti-depressant. Those are sometimes prescribed because they aren't regulated like opioid drugs, but they have similar pain-relieving effects. The downside is that she was completely out of it, acting drugged-up and like she was only half-there. It was sad and made me feel miserable that she couldn't just be on the medication that helped her.

The government measures success in how many people are injecting, smoking, snorting, or popping drugs. Forget if more people are dying, more people are suffering, or more people are losing their sense of self and in intractable pain because “drugs are bad, m'kay?”

I don't claim to have all the answers, but I do know one thing: We need less death and less suffering -- not more -- but that's all the so-called War on Drugs brings. We can afford to be cautious. What we can't afford is to be so narrow-minded and closed off to any possibility of changing the system that we resign ourselves to “the devil you know.”

I'm tired of the devil we know, and I think most everyone else is, too.