By Elias Savada.
As The Marijuana Conspiracy pushes toward its hazy end, the drugged-out zombies don’t seem to be as energetic or fun-loving as at the beginning.”
I suspect the last thing you want to do in a light cannabis dramedy about the “weed with roots in hell” — a tagline coined with the release of exploitation director Dwain Esper’s low-budget 1930s melodrama Marihuana — is that your film have barely any enlightenment, and that its cast could use a few hits to loosen up the fog-focused performances found in this “based on a true story” tale. 1936’s Reefer Madness, another cautionary drug film that was a midnight movie favorite of the 1970s, makes a brief cameo appearance.
Set in Toronto in 1972, The Marijuana Conspiracy takes a look at a radical study, for women ages 18-25, that offered free board, communal living, and some nice bucks over three months. And free dope. “How bad can this be,” one of the potential guinea pigs tells her mom, recently uplifted by her daughter’s specially blended brownies.
Craig Pryce is the producer-director-writer behind this half-a-century-later look at what might have been more biting film if not so poorly handled. This proudly Canadian production, unfortunately, takes a Hallmark Channel approach to the subject. That’s not unusual as Pryce has directed seven The Good Witch movies for that cable network, and those have spawned a quite successful series. His latest effort (filmed in 2019, premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in January 2020, now released via On Demand and Digital platforms by Samuel Goldwyn Films) has no supernatural notes and instead tends toward the usual Hallmark pablum. Going off-network has allowed Pryce to touch on other societal issues from the ’70s and stretch out the results into a 2+ hour film. Uptight parents, racism, woman’s liberation, LGBTQ issues all pad the film, with the last item being examined in especially awkward fashion. People were certainly stuck up then, and sadly, many still are 50 years on. Unfortunately, rather than expound on these matters with cinematic ingenuity, they are merely presented through straight dialogue.
The jump back into the theatrical ring for Pryce as a director has been a long time coming. His last feature was 1993’s The Dark, a fantasy/horror entry that was Neve Campbell’s big screen debut. That followed his debut feature, the quirkily named Revenge of the Radioactive Reporter, a low budget, Troma-esque style horror comedy released three years earlier. The lengthy gap that distanced his second and third features has not afforded him the ability to tackle the graver issues of The Marijuana Conspiracy‘s story. His ambitious agenda might have worked better in a documentary, but any character reenactments would easily doom that slant.
As part of the government-funded agenda the study was meant to counteract then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s attempt to legalize marihuana. Based on what’s shown in the film, it’s a rom-com turned shitstorm. Subjects can’t leave the building for 98 days and are cut off from friends and family. But pot twice a night! The tables have some popcorn, chops, peanuts, and plenty of cheap beer. There was a non-smoking control group you don’t see, and the 10 women in each make macramé arts and crafts to gauge the social and physical aspects of smoking weed.
Yet if this is a closed environment, why are they all wearing makeup? And why is the omnipresent staff allowing the ladies to light a ton of candles considering how unstable they are in their doctored condition. Early on, everyone looks so clean. Heck I barely remember taking a shower in the 1970s.
Most of the male members of the cast represent chauvinists, even its leader, the pot-smoking, alcohol-free vegetarian, long-haired Dr. Barry Fincher (Gregory Calderone). He knows enough to pop Visine into his eyes before being offered the study by a well-funded but conservative-leaning — and slyly devious — Addiction Research Foundation executive (Derek McGrath), hoping to provide evidence to shoot down the legalization effort.
While Pryce might think it’s cute to play dialogue as song titles by Bob Dylan or The Who, it’s not terribly original. He approaches his film’s focus as you expect from someone who is nominally straight, by introducing the five women who will be the study’s key subjects. Backstories ensue. Big-haired Afro-American Mourinda (Tymika Tafari), the do-good, homeless pixie Mary (Julia Sarah Stone), feminist paralegal Jane (Brittany Bristow), world traveler Janice (Kyla Young), and red-haired graphics designer Marissa (Morgan Kohan).
As these mind-altered female subjects scurry about their cage, stories flow out of the haze. Some funny, most not. Giggles follow, and dancing. Boring morning weigh-ins and a little too much attention from Adam (Luke Bilyk), one of the “observers” on the behavioral staff, toward one of the female 20-somethings. Is the film provocative. Barely, although the viewer might find more insight by wandering through the exhibits at the L.A.’s Weedmaps Museum of Weed or the Cannabition Cannabis Museum in Las Vegas.
As The Marijuana Conspiracy pushes toward its hazy end, the drugged-out zombies don’t seem to be as energetic or fun-loving as at the beginning. Dope friends have apparently become dope fiends. Watching it straight may have affected my perception of it, but I would have had to indulge mightily to give this even a passing grade.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).