Weed used to be cool, and a bit naughty. Ever since it escaped from jazz circles, and then got mixed up with the hippy revolution of the 1960s, it has been associated with counter culture. For decades, its continued legal prohibition and heavy-handed policing kept it in a separate mental box from alcohol (which, as we know, does far more social and individual harm).
Now things are slowly changing, and western countries are becoming less suspicious and frightened of it. Which is the moment that Rob Ryan’s fun documentary Breaking Habits steps into.
The subject of Ryan’s documentary is a woman now called Sister Kate (Spoiler alert! she is not actually a nun at all, but more on that later). Ryan was immediately taken with this bizarre self-publicising but intelligent and contradictory woman.
“You know, seeing a middle-aged American woman whose attitude to cannabis is so positive is strange. It is like hanging out with your kooky aunt.” Although she baulked at some of the intimacy of the portrayal, Sister Kate gave Ryan honest access to her life.
The director also reminds us that it is not easy to pigeonhole people like her.
“She is intelligent and complex, but real lives are complex. She is bright and worldly. She lived in Amsterdam for eight years [which is where her attitudes to this may have been formed] and she really believes in the healing power of high CBD medicinal cannabis. She is a healer.”
If you want to talk in tagline terms, the director offers the following: “Her habit is her armour, cannabis is her weapon.”
The other thing about Sister Kate is that, when she went through a divorce and needed money, she had already been in the high-end male-dominated corporate world, and deliberately wanted to set up a female-centred business as a counter example.
“It is fascinating that she now runs her business with a female skew and her motives are not just about profit but also about new ethics and equality. She has a moral compass and an ethic of social responsibility and that is not that usual. She is on a personal mission to change things from it being seen as a stoner industry to a healing industry.”
Ryan can see that there is a lighter side to all of this too. He was used to making documentaries for the BBC, where he says they were always guided by the implicit injunction to “have a worthy side”. Here, he wanted to educate and entertain. Naturally, the ‘headline’ is the dope-smoking angle and not the setting up of a low-profit organic business.
Ryan recalls watching the world’s press descending upon Sister Kate.
“It was interesting how the media covered her. The world media – the Guardian, Reuters etc. they were all there – and every single reporter had to get a shot of them smoking a spliff. But that was actually too easy for me. I wanted to get past that.”
As indicated, the film deals with the changing mores around cannabis (California, for example, moved to semi-legalisation in the late 1990s). However, it would again be too simple to think that it is just a matter of happy hippy growers. Where the crop is worth this much, criminal interests are bound to try and move in, and with them, comes the inevitable gun-backed violence that America is cursed with.
Ryan’s film does touch on this contradiction and how it muddies the debate.
“There is the other side. The black market doesn’t end when it gets legalised. In fact, it prospers. And what they were finding is that it is big business and when it makes a lot of money very quickly, you have organised gangs controlling the cannabis trade and this does fuel them to move into other drugs and this is where it gets very complex. And people used that money to go and buy lots of guns so that is a problem too. We have some sympathy for the police’s problems, but I was also sympathetic to what Sister Kate was trying to do. And when you look at the two of them, it is a balance. I wanted to say [to the viewer] – you make your decision. Everyone in this story is doing what they are doing for a reason and they believe it is a good reason. I don’t want to just celebrate cannabis, that wasn’t the point really.”
Even so, there is the possibility that the police will simply look comically redneck, or inept or unrealistic. The local sheriff is a useful antagonist for the film, and Ryan gives him a small but important space in the narrative.
“Actually, the sheriff initially turned me down. He actually took an instant dislike to Sister Kate. Firstly, because she was dressing up as a nun and also [because] she was challenging what he was doing. As far as he was concerned cannabis was a big problem in his county and she was part of that.”
So as a documentarian, Ryan chose not to editorialise too much here. It is a snapshot of the forces in balance and how they might evolve.
“I tried not to judge them. I do show both sides. And this struggle isn’t just in America, it is across the world, of course. The difference in America is that they [ the growers] avoid paying the tax. It is a private market model. In America now, they have all these dispensaries. It is like the Apple Store! You go into a shop and you have all these different grades of cannabis. But also, you are buying a quality-controlled product. They don’t spray their plants with heroin [as was rumoured], so people were getting that and not knowing, that sort of thing. I have also heard that they sometimes spray it with fibreglass to add weight to the product. The black market is scary in its way too, so regulation needs to catch up. Maybe cannabis should be treated like they treat alcohol; you shouldn’t be allowed it until you are twenty-one. So, it comes down to education. But there is still a grey area as far as I am concerned.”
So, what about this whole idea of dressing up in habits? There are scenes where we see the ‘nuns’ walking down the street in their local town. Interestingly, the nun outfits called forth a different set of negative reactions from some bystanders.
“In America now when people see her in the street, she gets insulted because of the history of Catholic church child abuse! The minute they know her group are not nuns, and that they are known as the ‘weed nuns’, everyone relaxes. That was quite surreal.”
Another story illustrates the unexpected aspects of the changing views of public behaviour. Sister Kate and her friends like to walk the walk, so at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, where the film had its US premiere, they duly sparked up a fat one. Ryan recalls security men immediately whispering into their lapel mics.
“At Santa Barbara they had it at 4/20 [a big ‘celebrate cannabis’ day in America] and there was a big queue. The organiser said to me, ‘there is a smell of spliff…’ And the security guys were going ‘we have got a situation… we have these nuns and they are trying to smoke a joint.’ But, of course, the funny thing was that they were really objecting to the smoking as much as anything because you can’t smoke cigarettes in public places there these days!”
Breaking Habits is in cinemas April 18, 2019