Frontline: "The Pot Republic"
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Frontline: "The Pot Republic"

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Frontline

"The Pot Republic"

Season 29, Episode 16

It has become conventional to understand American government as a unified entity. Sure, there are legal differences between the states, but in most people's understanding, those are quirks – buy your liquor early and in specific stores in some states, or pay no sales tax in others. Obviously the quality of government depends in each state, but the core concept is the same. Generally, when the idea of “state's rights” (let alone municipal rights) comes up, it's treated, often correctly, as a right-wing ploy to ban gay marriage or allow religious schools or end affirmative action.

The grand exception is for medicinal marijuana, and marijuana legalization generally. Several states, led by California, the focus of tonight's Frontline, have very different philosophies on marijuana than the federal government's demands for a War On Drugs. It's that discrepancy that gives “The Pot Republic” most of its narrative drive, and it's a fascinating one to focus on.

To Frontline's credit, it focuses almost exclusively on the legal and political issues of marijuana in California. The science and morality of pot are kept on the sidelines, which, given the relatively short length of the documentary and the complexity of the issues, is a wise decision. It's also a notable change from the last Frontline I covered on WikiSecrets, which spent three times more time on Bradley Manning's mental state than it did on the effects of the site, and one which I wholly endorse.

“The Pot Republic” is split into two halves, with the first focusing on more pro-legalization groups, and the latter on the federal opposition. Caught in the middle are the law enforcement and growers of Mendocino County (where I used to visit my grandma on holidays!). Their sheriff has implemented a new policy of registering the local growers for a fee, and helping them with inspections. On the other hand, their national parks are being taken over by out-of-state (or even out-of-country) growers, seeking to use California's loophole-riddled medicinal marijuana statutes in order to make a quick buck (or several million quick bucks, as the case may be).

At one point, the cameras are on two simultaneous meetings attended by Mendocino's law enforcement: one for the growers who have signed up for the registration program, and another for the impending raids on foreign-run grows in the area. The irony is not lost on the filmmakers or the documentary's subjects.

Mendocino's sheriff makes the claim that he's trying to eliminate the grey areas inherent to California's medicinal marijuana law, and while the documentary does make him into a sympathetic figure, I'm not actually certain he's right. It seems to be that he's one of the few people who's wise enough to acknowledge that there is a grey area, and it's best to work with it.

The feds who show up later, with their rigid takes on the Drug War, can't help but look a little foolish in comparison. Their points about foreigners coming into California, who are possibly connected to the Mexican cartels, are well-taken. But the idea of registering and forming relationships with local growers seems monumentally more productive than the long, losing battle of destroying marijuana where it's found. I'm not entirely certain if Frontline intended “The Pot Republic” to look that way, but its neutral tone and removal of moral consideration from the debate had that effect.