Why has cannabis become so deeply embedded in our national conversation? For one, it intersects with more facets of our lives than perhaps any other commodity: politics, economics, science, health, social justice, law enforcement, pop culture, so on and so forth. The Marijuana Conspiracy, a new film written and directed by Craig Pryce (Good Witch), employs the real-life story of a secretive Canadian cannabis research study where 20 young Canadian women were isolated in a hospital for three months and required to smoke weed daily – all the while undergoing constant testing – to explore the complex ways cannabis has become woven into society. While the film is heavy-handed at times — leaving viewers straining for missing historical context — it nonetheless tells a valuable story that resonates 40 years after the experiment occurred.
In the early 1970s, in the midst of an aggressive crackdown on drug consumption, then-Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau (the father of the current prime minister, Justin Trudeau) began quietly considering a plan to legalize marijuana. He hired Gerald Le Dain, a future Canadian Supreme Court justice, to lead a commission into the effects of cannabis on the human body. Bill Miles, a young British psychologist living in Toronto (renamed Barry Fincher in the film, and played with dazzling sleaze and a permanent Cheshire Cat grin by the talented Gregory Ambrose Calderone) became a prominent researcher in the field.
In 1972, Miles conducted what was to be his final study on the subject in a hospital in downtown Toronto with the 20 female participants (he noted in an early report that all of his previous data came from male subjects). For the next 90-odd days, the participants were locked inside. They spent their days weaving belts and they earned “money” selling them, which they then used to barter at a simulated store. At night — every night — they got baked. The Marijuana Conspiracy focuses on the surreal experiences of five women who participated in the study, and the emotional and physical tolls it inflicted on them.
The film, alas, would have made a far more compelling documentary (this excellent deep dive from the Toronto Star suffices, too). The story is crazier than fiction, but the film gets lost in its own contrived drama and attempts to do too much, seemingly, to demonstrate how the judgements and preconceived notions of cannabis use parallels others forms of discrimination.
Those similarities are certainly worth highlighting, but they are doused with enough Hallmark Channel schlock to blunt their power. The severe and perpetually exhausted Nurse Jones (Marie Ward), for instance, gets into an ever-deepening conflict with her long-time friend and collaborator Doctor Harlow (Paulino Nunes) after he spots her at a gay rights rally. The narrative draws attention to an alarming and poignant lesson in Canadian history, especially for a younger audience, myself included, unaware of the country’s decades of aggressive policing of LBGTQ individuals. In the film, resolution only occurs when Harlow discovers his own daughter is a lesbian and asks Jones to be a resource for her.
And while sexual tension between subjects and researchers — particularly in such an isolated environment — isn’t exactly surprising, the film’s exploration of an affair between Marissa (Morgan Kohan) and Adam (Luke Bilyk) is just…exhausting.
Yet the film is not all so melodramatic. Some of its strongest, most empathetic moments come in the form of levity. Early in the film Dr. Fincher, the young psychologist, meets up with his conservative, stodgy funder for lunch, John Bradow (Derek McGrath). Sitting in a bourgeois restaurant, Bradow smokes a cigar, eats meat and drinks a martini; Miles’ snarky response — he’s a vegetarian, and a judgy one to boot — is an endearing stand-in for the Berkeley NIMBY attitudes of nightmares.
Later, Marissa and Jane (Brittany Bristow), the token hippie of the crew, strike up a relationship of sorts with two young men, both institutionalized in an adjacent building, through a window. They play music trivia games, writing their questions on big sheets of card stock. The emboldened young men eventually ask Marissa and Jane to take their tops off; unfortunately for them, Nurse Jones arrives before long to squash their would-be merriment.
Otherwise, the film’s biggest strength is its alarming and effective portrayal of the negative effects of continuously smoking stronger and stronger weed (for the love of all things holy, don’t let California Sen. Dianne Feinstein see this). By the time the experiment concludes, the participants are truly fucked up, both physically and emotionally. As many of us can attest, yes, there can be such a thing as too much weed. That was clear for the government agencies behind the study, as well, who quickly moved to shut down the program and bury the evidence.
When at last our subjects leave the hospital at the end of the study, their relief is nearly palpable. Yet before the film ends, we see footage of Justin Trudeau on TV in 2018 (being viewed by the real-life Marissa) as he announces Canada’s plan to legalize cannabis. It’s a tidy and significant end to the film, but, like much of The Marijuana Conspiracy, it’s better explained by a Google search.