Inside the Mind Behind The Culture High

By Onya Ganja

Inside the Mind Behind The Culture High

Brett Harvey is the writer and director of two major cannabis documentaries—The Union: The Business Behind Getting High and The Culture High (currently available on Netflix US). The Union provided an in-depth look at British Columbia’s illegal cannabis market and its massive business on the west coast of Canada. In 2007 when The Union was made, BC’s trade was estimated at more than $7 billion. The Culture High came out last year, and it features leading experts revealing the current connections between social and medical topics related to cannabis and its prohibition.

I went to The Culture High premiere thinking I knew everything about cannabis, but the film helped me put all the pieces of the issues I knew into the wider context. I attempted to book screenings of the film as education- and community-building events, something I previously did for a documentary at two local colleges, but neither would screen the cannabis film. One never responded, and the other said they couldn’t screen the film to students because it would give the wrong message and show a positive bias. I then tried to book a screening at a coffee shop, which responded asking, “Do you just love marijuana that much?” After that, I tried to convince a drug task force I previously wrote for to screen the film, and while they did not seem opposed, they were too busy. Then I tried to book at a theater I wrote reviews for, and I am still waiting to hear back despite calling and emailing several times.

Though I struggled to screen the film, People Advocating Cannabis Education invited me to sit in an information booth outside a screening of The Culture High at a film festival. I sat in a cannabis information booth many times before, and I’ve been yelled at by a stranger, interrogated by concerned citizens and had a lot of people with cop-shaped heads try to buy “pot” from me. None of that was happening here—most people talked excitedly as they left the theater and seemed thrilled about cannabis as medicine—until the last day of the festival when my friend arrived at the booth early to find everything dismantled and missing. Asking around, my friend heard the words, “It was just too controversial, we just couldn’t deal with it today.” A lot of progress has been made, but until cannabis is legal, I will sometimes get yelled at and experience pushback for telling the truth about cannabis.

I caught up with Brett Harvey to ask if he ever experienced pushback, and we ultimately talked about much more, including the legalization movement, music and the future.

Do you think cannabis is a human right by definition and why?

Any choice in life that involves the ability to decide one’s own preference, and doesn’t hurt others, is a human right. That can be applied to any choice. The right to engage in the use of cannabis is no different. It’s a simple rule. If society would embrace it across the board, we would live in a much safer and happier world.

You directed The Union and The Culture High. How was the response the films received different?

They are two very different films from contrasting times. The Union: The Business Behind Getting High was a discovery film. It was created at a point when marijuana awareness among the majority of the general public was not overly sophisticated. Ignorance was still rampant in regards to the nuances of issues that prohibition creates. This gave The Union the ability to generate interest from an area of society that was starting to wake up to the idea that there was even a problem in the first place. The Culture High, on the other hand, was entering into a highly educated group of viewers, who were fully aware of the problem and were well schooled on the issues. The Culture High’s objective was to break down the bigger picture for them by connecting dots that at times can seem foggy. Its appeal was more universal in that it revealed the underpinnings of a broken system and uncloaked the faultiness that the system was built on. How we receive information is currently in a transition period due to the internet and social media. The Culture High itself is a demonstration of the power of that transition.

To my knowledge, both you and the producer, Adam Scorgie, abstain from cannabis in any form. Does this add credibility to the validity of your movies and your motivations for making them?   

Well, I have tried cannabis, but it’s by no means a regular thing for me. Adam most definitely does not use cannabis, nor does my editor. This point adds credibility to both films because they aren’t fueled by a need to paint cannabis with a one-sided brush. The ideas and issues addressed in each film come from the standpoint of determining the legitimacy of the policies in place, not whether we think you should run out and use cannabis. We honestly couldn’t care less whether someone chooses to engage the plant. What we do care about is whether that same person would face criminal penalties for making that choice. That’s where the issue lies. The film is not pro-cannabis—although it does highlight benefits—but it is pro-the right to choose.

Do you see more people who don’t use cannabis interested in the topic now compared to when you made The Union?

Absolutely. The issue of cannabis prohibition has become a universal topic that bonds people across the planet. There’s a realization that prohibition affects us all regardless of the language you may speak or the culture you may come from. Cannabis prohibition, for lack of a better word, fucks us all. Now that the world is waking up, so too is the universal interest in correcting the problem.

When you think about cannabis, what song comes to mind and how was the music for The Culture High chosen?

This may sound odd, but the first song that comes to mind when I think about cannabis prohibition is “Journey to the Line” by Hans Zimmer. When I was writing and researching The Culture High, that was the song I would listen to. For some reason it tapped into a pocket of inspiration in my brain that fueled me forward. In regards to the music in the film, that was a process that involved numerous coffee meetings with the fantastic Michael Champion, the film’s music composer. I would come to Michael with the style and feel I wanted, and he would bring to the table a plethora of ideas and musical sound beds that would drive the film from beginning to end.  

What is your favorite part of the culture that surrounds cannabis use?

Recreationally, it’s fascinating to see the ingenuity of a skyrocketing market in its infancy in areas like Colorado. It’s extremely rewarding to not only witness the model work on a practical level, but excel to the point that it is giving back to the community and the people who were bold enough to take it on. Not to mention the people who weren’t. In regards to the medicinal area of cannabis use, I can’t think of a more exciting adventure currently taking place. With its potential now being unshackled, medicinal marijuana’s diversity seems to be unmatched. It feels like we are currently dipping our toes into an ocean of promise. The years to come will tell us just how far that promise reaches.  

What do you think has to happen before cannabis becomes legal in all of North America?

It’s already happening… momentum with social progress tends to be stirred through the security of repetition. We as humans often require examples set by others before we buy into change. It takes a heroic few to make the leap which will cause the initial swell. In the case of America, states like Colorado and Washington have started the swell. In other areas of the world, it’s countries like Uruguay and Portugal. The sky didn’t fall as they took the dive into legalization. With their successes, we will see the wave of legalization build. Eventually that wave will wash over the entire country. With that kind of precedent from a country that has been so influential in the War on Drugs, we will see the the rest of North America follow. In regards to politicians, it’s a matter of votes and money. Any area of the country where the money and votes switch over in favor of legalization, so too will the politicians. They don’t behold to any standard other than that which keeps them in power with pockets filled.

In your opinion, what has been the biggest change since the initial release of The Culture High?

The biggest change is the universal understanding that cannabis prohibition is not an isolated anomaly that just happened to slip through the cracks of a well-functioning social system. It is the result of a broken system. It is a problem that is systemic from the top down. And if we don’t correct the system, we will surely continue to see social issues handled as poorly as the prohibition of cannabis has been.  

Have you experienced any pushback from making cannabis documentaries?

Surprisingly, very little. You would think with such a polarizing topic there would be major pushback. There hasn’t been. I believe there is a very specific reason for this. Those in favor of maintaining cannabis prohibition don’t want to bring attention to a film like ours. It’s much easier to pretend our film doesn’t exist and sweep it under the rug, rather than attacking it and having to face the arguments made within it. That’s pretty much been the approach of prohibitionists over the years. Scare the shit out of everyone and don’t examine the logic of the approach. That era is coming to an end, though. With information now flowing through the internet, we are seeing a new precedence in access to accurate news that hasn’t been dressed up in the cloak of a corporate machine. The new age of technology is here, and it’s taking a wrecking ball to the ignorance of the past.  

What are you working on next?

At the moment I’m directing and writing a feature documentary called Ice Guardians that examines the role of the enforcer in the NHL. After that, the waters are still open. There’s plenty of topics that are peaking my curiosity. There are plenty of things to be pissed off about.

Would you be tempted to make another cannabis film after legalization?

When I finished The Union, I promised myself that I would never make another cannabis film. After I finished The Culture High, I again promised myself that I would never make another cannabis film. The future has a funny way of cycling you through ideas you thought you had fully expressed yourself on, only to find out there is always something more to explore. My feeling is that I may once again enter the waters of cannabis. The only question is when and for what reason …

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