December 20, 2011 -- This documentary about average-looking white people who spent years in prison for selling marijuana could have made the case for legalizing marijuana, or how the laws against marijuana are just as wrongheaded as the laws against alcohol were during prohibition, but it doesn't really do that directly. It could have made the point that the laws against marijuana are anti-capitalistic. It could have made a point about these kinds of prosecutions causing overcrowding in prisons. Instead, it is just a documentary about people making a lot of money selling marijuana who then spent a lot of years in prison for selling a product people want to buy for a price they were willing to pay for it.
The film is comprised of three chapters, each one a different legal case brought by the government against people or organizations in the marijuana import, sales or distribution businesses. All three stories are set in Florida. The first story is the most unusual one. It concerns an obscure church, the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church, which is associated with the Rastafarian movement. The church uses marijuana as a sacrament. The church flourished in Jamaica in the 1970s, then a branch was established in Florida in 1975.
Law enforcement officials were reluctant to prosecute members of the church because such action, if unsuccessful, could set a precedent allowing marijuana as a legal expression of faith. However, when children were shown on TV news shows smoking marijuana, federal, state and local law enforcement agencies descended on the church. The church was a front for a large drug smuggling and sales operation and tons of marijuana were seized. Some members of the church served long prison sentences.
The second story concerns some businessmen who got into the drug business at a time when it looked like marijuana was going to be legalized. The idea was to get in on the ground floor of a rapidly-expanding business. Before long, the businessmen were involved in drug supply operations in Columbia and were involved in banking and hotel operations in Florida related to the business. There were arrested and sentenced to long prison terms, they claim because of prosecutorial misconduct, including inflation of the amount of drugs sold.
The third story has to do with Everglades City, a fishing town in Florida. After federal regulations stopped the town's traditional fishing practices, most of the people in the town turned to drug smuggling, often using the same boats that had been used for fishing. Large amounts of money flooded into the town, catching the attention of the news media, and later, federal law enforcement agencies, which were able to infiltrate and stop the drug smugglers. Locals had an interesting rational for their action. They said the federal government had promised not to interfere with their fishing rights, then broke that promise. The fishermen used their skills and knowledge of the Everglades to pursue what seemed to be the only alternative way to make a living: drug smuggling.
There are some interesting and entertaining scenes in the film, like a man in Everglades City singing a Jimmy Buffett song about smuggling. In another scene, a man and his wife return to their old house for a visit and talk about how their lives have changed since they lived there. The remarkable thing is how average-looking these people are. They don't look, or act, like criminals. It is easy to believe their stories about other prisoners asking them, “what are you doing here?” The name “square grouper,” by the way, is a slang term for a bale of marijuana packaged for shipping. This film rates a B.
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