Devouring Cannabis

Grass Fed director Ezra Soiferman

I’m a very curious person and have been since I was a little kid. And one thing I’ve been more curious about than anything else has been cannabis.

To be clear, I love all sorts of stuff, like my family, making documentaries, shooting photos, exploring out-of-the-way restaurants, and how can I forget, doing laundry. But I’ve got to say, in all my years, little has fascinated me more than a certain oft-misunderstood, supposed ‘wonder-plant’.

Cannabis is the plant from which we get marijuana and hemp. It’s the world’s most valuable cash crop encompassing what people in the know insist are tens of thousands of products and by-products that can be made from it. All from what is ultimately just an herb or a weed.

GrassFed director Ezra Soiferman
Grass Fed director Ezra Soiferman

What lies at the heart of my fascination is the plant’s unparalleled versatility. With this tiny seed that a farmer pushes into the earth, much can be done for people and the planet.

As I’ve learned while researching my new documentary, Grass Fed, cannabis in one form or another can be used for everything from healthcare to nutrition, ecology to economy, recreation to religion, and relaxation to inspiration.

It’s a time-tested plant used by humans for at least 10,000 years, across climates, religions, cultures, age groups and social strata.

There are the obvious things that come from cannabis, like pot, the recreational drug, and then there’s medicine; lab-tested medical cannabis that’s high in THC (the medical and psychoactive compound), or ‘high-CBD cannabis’ (the CBD molecule has none of THC’s buzz but many similar and complementary medicinal benefits).

Thanks to years of diligent selective breeding, there are now hundreds of different marijuana strains (with names as unlikely as Blueberry Haze, Girl Scout Cookies and Chocolope) to help suffering patients treat the symptoms of a seemingly unending list of diseases and afflictions.

Marijuana can help with eating disorders (it’s an appetite stimulant), anxiety (it’s an anti-anxiolytic), ADD/ADHD (it helps increase focus), Alzheimer’s (it’s a neuro-protectant), arthritis (it’s an anti-inflammatory), and asthma (it’s a bronchodilator). And those are just the ailments it treats that start with the letter A.

All the way up to the letter Z, there are dozens of conditions it has been either scientifically proven to treat or anecdotally been a godsend for. These include MS, epilepsy, depression, fibromyalgia, migraines, the effects of chemotherapy like nausea and neuropathy, and many more.

On the hemp side of things, there’s clothing, footwear, rope, paper, seeds, oil, protein powder and snack foods, and not so obvious products like plastics, paint, fuel, nanoparticles, concrete, upholstery, cardboard, loudspeakers, slippers, guitars, purses and frisbees. And much, much more.

The hemp crop is exceptional for the soil and the air as it grows. It combats global warming, requires few if any pesticides and needs far less water than most crops. It gives farmers a healthy return on their investment and is non-toxic, bio-degradable, nutritious and an all-around one-of-a-kind force to be reckoned with. I’m not the first to extoll hemp’s virtues and I won’t be the last, but it needed to be said here for you to see in case you’re new to the party.

Medicinal products
Medicinal products

But… is cannabis – encompassing the leafy green rock stars marijuana and hemp – really a wonder-plant? Wise women and wise men, I hate to break it to you, but I’m fairly certain it is. Over the past 15 or so years, I’ve put in at least a Malcolm Gladwell-sized truckload of 10,000+ hours into devouring news reports, literature and films on the subject; initially out of personal interest and more recently while researching and shooting Grass Fed. Everything points to this: if this isn’t a wonder-plant, I really don’t know what is. Kale? Can you make a pair of shoes out of kale? Didn’t think so. Echinacea? Can you make a boat’s sail out of Echinacea? Didn’t think so either.

I have yet to stumble across anything else as potentially useful to humankind as cannabis. It’s a big statement I realize, and even I’d agree it sounds slightly ridiculous, but I swear I’ve searched long and hard.

The only thing that I could come up with that may be as important for humankind is love. Well, now I’ve gone from the ridiculous to the sublime, but I do believe it to be true. We live in tough times and love really can pull us through. But love doesn’t grow on trees, and well, cannabis kind of does. In fact, it can replace trees as far as making paper efficiently and environmentally is concerned. So, perhaps cannabis trumps love?

My curiosity about the plant has not just encompassed reading about it and making films on the subject, I’ve also met with experts and scholars, visited forward-thinking companies in the sector, spearheaded hemp initiatives like CinemaSpace (the world’s first cinema with hemp seats and free hemp seed and soap samples for patrons) and Hemp for the Homeless which put functional ‘hemp help kits’ into the hands of homeless shelter residents in Montreal. I’ve worn hemp clothes almost exclusively for the past 10 years, eaten high-protein hemp seeds every day for at least as long, and I wash my hands, hair and dishes with organic hemp soap and shampoo.

The integration of hemp into my life doesn’t just feel good, look good and smell nice, it’s also become a kind of ritual for me much in the same way some people keep Kosher or say their prayers each night before bed. It’s just what I do and it’s one of the things keeps me healthy, happy and grounded. I’m lucky enough not to have any ailments that I’d need medical marijuana for, but if I did, I’d certainly consider it and talk to my doctor about it.

With Grass Fed – my first feature-length film and one I’m very eager to share with the public after close to two years of writing, shooting and editing with an incredible team – I felt I needed to capture and distill a specific slice of the big picture of cannabis.

GrassFed
Grass Fed

I knew I couldn’t possibly tell the whole history of the plant (this has already been done very well in other films), nor cover all the initiatives taking place in the burgeoning industry and active political scene today (these are amply covered daily in the media with news reports slung at us about ‘pot politics’, ‘bud & breakfast’ resorts, successful ‘ganjapreneurs’ and the blossoming ‘green rush’), so I whittled my vision down to an intimate, personal story set in the rapidly growing world of medical cannabis ‘edibles’, a peculiar phenomenon that hadn’t yet been fully explored in depth in a documentary.

I also challenged myself to bring viewers into this colorful world through fresh eyes. Eyes other than my own. I lucked out when I happened to cross paths one evening with Montreal actor-comedian Mike Paterson with whom I’d worked on a mutual friend’s short film set some 15 years earlier.

When we reconnected, the 40-year-old Mike confided in me that he was secretly living with an awful case of sciatica that hadn’t abated in 9 months. Even his manager didn’t know about the intense back and right leg pain because he feared if she did, she’d insist that he stop working, something he had no desire to do. I told him about my quest to make a film about the world of edibles and asked him if he had any interest in being the film’s subject. Desperate to try anything to help with the pain where nothing else had worked, he and his fiancée Monika trustingly gave me the go-ahead to begin.

The film follows Mike as he chases and tries to overcome his pain by chowing down on tiny, gorgeous dark chocolate brownies that Monika, a third-generation expert German-lineage baker, whips up for him. We then see him get up off the proverbial floor and set out boldly-yet-limping onto the road towards health.

I was privileged to follow his journey closely throughout the 4 months leading up to their wedding. Viewers who see the film will learn about cannabis – both hemp from the health food store as well as doctor-prescribed, legally obtained marijuana from Tweed, Canada’s largest Health Canada-sanctioned licensed cannabis producer – all through Mike’s eyes, from the inside out.

Mike Paterson’s marijuana and hemp-infused diet had profound effects on him.

The medical pot become a catalyst not just for significantly less pain and improved sleep, but also led to a psychological shift that precipitated a radical lifestyle change that included no booze (a mainstay of Mike’s and indeed many stand up comics), lots and lots of exercise (something Mike hadn’t done in years), vegetarian eating (not really a stretch since Mike was already meat-free for years, often proclaiming to audiences, “That’s right, I’m the fattest vegetarian you’ve ever seen!”) and ultimately substantial weight loss (something Monika, especially, hoped would occur as obesity was taking its toll on Mike).

All of Mike’s hard work and determination, supported in no small part by Monika’s believing in him, culminated in Cancun, Mexico, at one of the strangest and most touching destination weddings you’re likely to ever witness. Bring tissues.

As Mike learns in Grass Fed, cannabis has long been misunderstood, demonized, stigmatized and criminalized. In fact, until the making of Grass Fed, he too was a sceptic, sometimes looking down on other comedians and friends who used it. But his views changed during the film’s making, much in the same way that public opinion has shifted significantly in recent years. Law by law, vote by vote, state by state and country by country, cannabis is coming back. The underdog has seemingly overnight become a modern day powerhouse; appreciated, studied, and even celebrated.

In fact, while the film was being made, it wasn’t just Mike who was transforming. The whole cannabis landscape in Canada was evolving before our eyes. Edibles finally became fair game for medical purposes thanks to a landmark unanimous Supreme Court ruling, and the Liberal Party ran on a platform, amongst other things, promising to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana. And in spite of this, or arguably because of it, the party won the October election with a significant majority.

Mike and Monika
Mike and Monika

I knew the film was timely when we started shooting, but I honestly had no idea it would be SO timely in light of these profound changes in our country.

Sure, there are still sceptics, detractors and upholders of antiquated, repeatedly-debunked Reefer Madness era fear-mongering.

And by all means, the consumption of marijuana is certainly not for everyone, especially kids and teens with developing brains (unless by medical necessity).

Nor will cannabis necessarily work medicinally for everyone like it did for Mike or your neighbour or relative who may have obtained great relief with it, but this alleged wonder-plant can no longer be offhandedly dismissed as a “Hippie pipe dream,” as my old friend Zed Starkovich (who first tipped me off to hemp in college in the early 90s) explains to Mike in one of the scenes from the film we traveled to L.A. to shoot.

To sum up, I firmly believe we are living in what I like to call ‘the Big Bang of cannabis’. Over the past 5 or so years, the marijuana and hemp industries have expanded so quickly and broadly that there is now a booming industry being created right in front of the eyes of those who have been turned on to the idea – or more the realization – that this age-old plant is not just a potential wonder-plant, but in fact the next big thing. In the 80s everything went ‘digital’ and we never looked back. Now, all signs are pointing to the dawning of the Age of Cannabis. I’m not making this stuff up, all indications are that hemp and marijuana will give alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, pharmaceuticals, cotton, petrochemicals, and various other major industries a serious run for their money.

Hemp seeds
Hemp seeds

I’ve never spoken out about my curiosity for and fascination with cannabis in such a detailed and public way and I thank you for your curiosity as well as your time and open mind.

I encourage you to do your own research to find out more about this plant. A good place to begin could be by seeing my movie. I hope you enjoy watching Mike’s adventure as much as I enjoyed filming it with him.

-Ezra Soiferman

Ezra Soiferman is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and street photographer based in Montreal. His films have played at over 30 film festivals worldwide and have appeared on numerous TV channels. They include Tree Weeks, about Quebec Christmas tree vendors in Manhattan and Man of Grease, about Cosmos Snack Bar in Montreal’s NDG neighbourhood. More info is available at his blog, EzSez.com.

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Grass Fed airs across Canada on Tuesday, November 24th, 2015, at 9pm ET on the CBC’s documentary Channel. The film will be released online in Canada and the USA in early 2016.

To view the Grass Fed trailer, click here.

To visit and Like the film’s Facebook page for updates and background info on the film, click here.

For the recipe to Monika’s medicated brownies, click here.

GRASS FED is produced by Muse Entertainment Enterprises, a leading film and television production house behind Emmy Award-winning event miniseries such as The Kennedys and Pillars of the Earth and premium factual projects including JFK: The Smoking Gun, Sky Jumpers, and March to the Pole. Muse’s latest highly-rated miniseries is Tut which aired on the Spike channel in the U.S. and Canada and on numerous networks around the world.

Ezra would like to thank blogger, writer and friend, Brenda Keesal, of the blog Burns the Fire  for helping him coalesce his ideas into this post.

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