Freelance film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
DRUGS: In the US state of Colorado, the legalisation of marijuana has seen mass commercialisation and neighbourhoods of colour exploited by unscrupulous profiteers

When citizens in Colorado voted to amend their state’s constitution and legalise marijuana for recreational use, many were thinking it would simply grant freedom to the casual user who grew a plant or two in their garden shed, unwind on the couch with a joint, and enjoy their pastime in peace. They didn’t reckon, however, with the aggressive commercialisation of cannabis as a product, which quickly took hold when the laws came into effect in 2014 and has seen neighbourhoods of colour exploited by unscrupulous profiteers. At least, that’s the argument presented in the documentary Pot Luck: The Altered State of Colorado by British filmmaker Jane Wells, which is weighted on the negative side of the cannabis legalisation debate and is more cautionary tale than endorsement. The laws on marijuana in the U.S. differ from state to state, and Colorado was one of the first of eleven states to opt for legalisation. Wells surveys the ramifications through interviews with an array of experts, enthusiasts, members of law enforcement and industry players.

The opening sequence takes us inside the International Church of Cannabis in Denver. Housed in a converted century-old Lutheran church, its eye-popping interior is wall-to-wall neon psychedelia, painted by an artist from Madrid. Church co-founder Lee Molloy guides us through, his demeanour the cliche of the spaced-out stoner, explaining how the organisation, whose members call themselves Elevationists and use cannabis as a sacrament, began. The sequence is played for laughs rather than as a dire warning about any perceived harms of the drug, the director seeming to be under no illusion that cannabis is a scourge on society in any way comparable to America’s opioid crisis, even if she doesn’t trust smoking as a source of tasteful inspiration or productivity (further in, a so-called «old-school pot smoker» in a T-shirt that reads «What Day Is It» archly plays further into the stereotype of the slacker stoner stereotype).

The majority of cannabis dispensaries in the state are concentrated in poor neighbourhoods of colour

The uneven dosages of THC in edibles that persist due to inadequate regulation are referenced as problematic, but the real damage being done in Colorado since the law change, Pot Luck contends, is not so much related to health, but to structural inequality. The majority of cannabis dispensaries in the state are concentrated in poor neighbourhoods of colour, and managed by white people who are unfairly advantaged in dealing with the red tape and background checks required to go into business (tens of thousands of criminal records related to marijuana in the state remain uncleared). In other words, the legalisation of marijuana is benefitting big business and not the marginalised communities whose members have been disproportionately jailed as a result of the war on drugs. The recreational market has hijacked the medicinal market, in the sense that recommendation scripts for marijuana are being sold for one hundred dollars a pop and are regarded as easy money by physicians, according to one medical professional.

Pot Luck: The Altered States of Colorado, a film by Jane Wells

What is more, legalisation has seen violent crime go up, rather than down, because institutional frameworks such as banking have not kept pace with the speed the cannabis industry has taken off in Colorado, so it «still has the overtones of a street hustle», we’re told. Before ex-military personnel were enlisted to guard dispensaries, there were seven to eight armed robberies of them per week. The reluctance of banks to offer them basic services, since marijuana is still classified by the federal government as a narcotic, placing financial institutions who take their cash at risk of prosecution for money laundering even in states in which cannabis is legal, has left dispensaries in a «money-in-a-shoebox» type of predicament similar to transactions in the crime world. The air of criminality attached to the business despite the law change persists in many moral attitudes as well — one addiction recovery specialist refers to the legalisation as «putting lipstick on a pig», since «drug dealing is drug dealing».

legalisation has seen violent crime go up

While we might come away from Pot Luck convinced that the legalisation of cannabis has done more harm than good in Colorado, it is a change that is likely here to stay, a police chief says, since it has now been enshrined in the constitution and pro-marijuana citizens have very quickly become vocal that possessing pot is not only no longer illegal, but a «constitutional right». Taking that right away then becomes a challenge to their fundamental freedom as Americans, according to the rhetoric.

While many citizens of Denver object to having so many cannabis billboards in their face as a result of the new law, it has brought a regret of a different sort to one woman. «When it became legal it took the fun out of it a little bit,» she says, nostalgically recalling the illicit thrill lighting up used to bring her. It’s hard for any legislation to keep everyone happy, might just be our biggest takeaway from this film.