High Country: The Altered State of Colorado
Since 2014, cannabis coverage in the majority of mainstream media has leaned far more positive than negative (this column included) as it relates to the impact of adult-use legalization. While an entire new industry has emerged — to the tune of $10.9 billion of consumer spending worldwide in 2018 — the fact that 659,700 people were arrested for a marijuana law violation in 2017 (46.9% of which were black or Latino) is grossly overlooked.
Enter documentarian Jane Wells, who has spent the past two years criss-crossing Colorado speaking with residents of our groundbreaking state about the effect legalization has had on their communities for her latest film, “Pot Luck: the Altered State of Colorado.” As a former full-time Aspenite, Wells is now based in Manhattan where she’s the executive director of 3 Generations, a social justice filmmaking nonprofit, which has produced notable titles including the Darfur exposé “The Devil Came on Horseback.”
As director and producer, her “Pot Luck” road trip set out to find what the new normal looks like through the eyes of a colorful cast of Coloradans (and Roaring Fork Valley locals) including businessmen, budtenders, barbers, cops and farmers begging the questions: “The war on drugs has failed: is legalization of cannabis the answer? Is this blazed new world a good one? Have the injustices of the war on drugs been addressed? Is legalization synonymous with greater social justice? What is driving the movement to legalize cannabis, progressive ideals or capitalism?”
Wells is still finalizing plans for the film’s world premiere and festival run later this year, but she’s heading back to Aspen for a sneak-peek screening at the Baldwin Gallery on Sunday, July 14, where she will be joined for a post-screening Q&A with addiction recovery specialist Ben Cort and other guests who appear in the film. Before then, I caught up with Wells to go beyond the headline hysteria and behind the scenes.
Katie Shapiro: What was the impetus in making this film?
Jane Wells: The cannabis trash can at Aspen airport started me thinking. Medical marijuana had been legal when we lived in Colorado but returning as a tourist a few years ago, I was struck by the changes that had occurred; the new retail shops, the ubiquitous smell and the seismic cultural shift. I wanted to understand the true impact, beyond propaganda, and show the rest of the world what legalization looks like.
KS: How did you come together with Robin Quivers to narrate the film?
JW: I wanted to find a narrator who shared my cannabis-neutral point of view, and someone who is also aware of the failures of the war on drugs. When I learned Robin Quivers would do this, I was thrilled. Plus I think the film is quite funny and she has a wonderful laughing voice. She is a perfect choice for this film.
KS: Did you set out to intentionally create a counterpoint to popular opinion about how Coloradans feel about cannabis?
JW: No, not at all. As a progressive, I have long known that the war on drugs was unfairly incarcerating people of color. Had I still been a Colorado voter in 2012, I would have voted for Amendment 64. I approached the subject with an open mind hoping to unravel something I found totally bizarre. I grew up in a world where being arrested for drug possession was scary and shameful, so I still find the idea of legality amazing. But the more we filmed the more questions I had — specifically about racial and social justice. Was this brave new world really a better one? And, if so, for whom? That’s the question I asked everyone we filmed. As we edited my intention became to challenge audiences to think this through more fully. My view that canna-business is benefiting the few at the expense of the many has only deepened since we filmed. We have even seen people like John Boehner join the industry, while pitifully few people of color are benefiting from the financial bonanza.
KS: What was the biggest learning for you about legalization in Colorado and the precedent it has set for the rest of the country?
JW: First, that the cannabis industry is proving difficult-to-impossible to regulate. The emerging regulations are a haphazard slew of reactive laws trying to staunch myriad problems — home grows, potency, toxicity, zoning, access among minors, etc. This creates major legislative overload. Second, what I found particularly disturbing is the discrepancy in social justice. For those who live in Section 8 public housing, if you are caught consuming cannabis (even medical) you can lose your home and your permanent right to subsidized housing. A two-tier system is not justice.
KS: Why Aspen for a sneak-peek screening?
JW: Because I lived in Aspen, I have had strong ties to the community for over 20 years and I love Colorado and the Roaring Fork Valley in particular. I shot another feature documentary here (“Tricked,” about sex trafficking), for which I spent months embedded with the Denver Police Department. When Jackie Long of Callie’s Backyard Foundation offered to host a screening I was delighted because Aspen will always be home to me. I am excited to show the film to a local audience and hear their response. My friends are pretty equally divided between being active advocates for legalization and being concerned about the impact on young people and community health. As THC levels have increased, I have come to understand that the dangers of the drug for young people are under-reported and misunderstood. However, that is not the focus of the film.
KS: What stands out about Aspen’s cannabis landscape as it relates to the rest of the state?
JW: There are two things about Aspen and cannabis that stand out to me. First, the sheer number of stores per capita is not normal and second, that this penetration exists in a town of such high per capita net worth. High concentrations of dispensaries tend to be found in communities of color. Aspen hardly fits that profile, so what we see reflected here is the economic juggernaut of cannabis tourism.
Katie Shapiro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @bykatieshapiro.
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