Date and Venue January 28 at 9pm on CBC

Reviewer Roger Wayne Eberle

CannaBiz—the Secret Economy of Marijuana is an hour-long CBC documentary that takes an inside look at a few of the reasons this increasingly lucrative illegal cash crop is at once so attractive for growers and so problematic for policemen. Its central story unfolds over a single growing season in the small rural town of Grand Forks.

One of the biggest challenges faced by writer/director Lionel Goddard was getting big commercial growers to appear on camera. Several willingly spoke off the record, giving a wealth of background information about this underground industry, but only one was willing to end his secret life and give his story on the air.

Mr. Goddard says that the level of technology and sophistication used in the marijuana growing industry are remarkable, and that tens of thousands of dollars are used in infrastructure alone. Wanting to avoid a moral debate about this issue, that Goddard says people have become tired of, he set about making a film that explores things like the tortured psyches of conflicted public servants forced to enforce laws that courts only marginally uphold: People such as RCMP constable Harland Venema who frequently finds himself having to arrest civic-minded community volunteers in Grand Forks for their involvement in the marijuana growing industry; or Stephen Easton, a research fellow for the Fraser Institute, whose recommendations for decriminalization seem to have fallen on deaf governmental ears.

In our current economic climate, it may be ironic to say it, but our provincial government seems to be doing its part to stimulate the underground marijuana industry. Lenient sentences for marijuana grow-operators and lax law enforcement procedures make it clear that the current policy appears to be one Goddard aptly calls ‘Prohibition Light’. As this documentary proves, there are those who stand to benefit from this government’s laissez faire policies, and it is not just those who collect the tax from equipment used for infrastructure in this industry, either.

Cannabiz is not lacking in principles. It explores plenty of them. Principles of community policing and the need to uphold the law come in conflict with principles of civic-minded fraternity and community spirit. A criminologist examines the principles of morality versus economics. Mr. Marc Emery holds forth on his principled objection to the illegality of the drug. Principles abound and profits accrue.

Overall, the story here seems fairly balanced in a slightly skewed kind of a way, especially considering where our center sits these days. After all, there is a policeman on one side of the law, mostly; and a perpetrator on the other side of the law, mostly. These are hardly traditional adversaries, yet their complex intertwining relationship seems a commonplace of paradox next to the ringing pronouncements delivered by died-in-the-wool marijuana activist Emery and think-tank guru Stephen Easton.

As Goddard reminded me in our telephone interview, objectivity and balance are two different things. I’d venture to say Cannabiz is a fine piece of journalism that is as objective as it is balanced. It also does as good a job as possible of keeping the story centred on the economic side of what is sure to remain a volatile issue for years to come.

© 2010 Roger Wayne Eberle