Peter Spirer: Man, Myth, Legend (of 420)

Peter is an Academy Award nominated film director (for Blood Ties: The Life and Work of Sally Mann) and once-touring musician who has a penchant for making hip-hop documentaries. Oh, and in case you think Spirer doesn’t do narrative feature films, he produced and directed Just Another Day, starring Wood Harris and Jamie Hector (of The Wire fame). Peter has also learned a lot about medical marijuana since making the documentary, which we’ll ask him about.

So, onto the interview …

Could you tell us more about your beginnings, both as a musician and documentary filmmaker, and why you decided to make the switch from music to film?

I grew up playing music in Florida, where I grew up. At the same time, I had two parents who were complete film fanatics. They would take me to see everything, and I remember even being a little kid, looking around the movie theatre, realizing that I was the only child at the time watching this stuff. My parents never really put any boundaries on any film. They took me to see everything. The only film they would not take me to was Easy Rider. That came out when I was 11 or something like that. I remember that was one film they thought was … I don’t know … “too much”? But, you know, I would see Truffaut films, Herzog, people like that.

And then, I was playing music in college. I had a band that was fairly successful. I started going to college and my dad was very concerned that I would study music. He did not feel that was something I would be able to fall back on, and wanted something more meaningful to him. He said, “Look, son. You really need something to fall back on.”

So, while I was going to university still undeclared [no chosen major] trying to figure it all out, I had a friend who was head of our student film programme for students going to the university. We would watch films together, and I would know so much more than she would about these films we were watching. She said, “My God! You should be in cinema school. You should take film.”

I couldn’t even believe they had a film class or film studies. So I took the film studies class and fell in love with it, and never looked back. My father didn’t want me to study music – he wanted me to fall back on something. So I ended up in film! It wasn’t much of a parachute! I don’t think that was what he was hoping for! He realized how passionate I was about it and supported me in any way he could.

Shooting film at Venice Beach
Peter filming at Venice Beach

Do you use cannabis and, if so, what sort of strains and products do you like?

I’m not a big cannabis user. I smoke occasionally, but about a year ago, my CEO came to me and said, “I’d really like you to do a film on cannabis, the different trends and the things that are going on.” I told him, “I don’t think I’m qualified.” I’m no expert, and I know guys who are really into this stuff. They can break down the science of it and whatnot. I’m just not that kinda guy. But he said, “Look. Research it. Read about it.”

I had earlier done a film on the prison-industrial complex. So, I was familiar with the incarceration of many non-violent drug offenders, and that always bothered me a lot. And now reading about cannabis and the history of it, and the government’s move towards relegating a whole group of people … My malaise turned into anger. Reading about this stuff and seeing what’s occurred …

For instance, we have, in America, a for-profit prison system. I’m realizing now that it’s a lot easier to house non-violent drug offenders than it is to house murderers, rapists and violent offenders. There’s almost an incentive to get those people out of the system quickly, and to keep the non-violent ones because there’s fewer liability issues, they’re much easier to maintain and manage. You know, it’s really incredible, when you think about it.

You also see all the medical benefits cannabis can provide. I’ve even worked for big pharma! I used to do big industrial films for Warner-Lambert and Parke-Davis, and … I mean, I think ultimately what they’re doing is good, even though it’s for-profit as well. They’re providing drugs to the public that might ease our pain or suffering, but I also think they have a huge profit incentive to quash anything that might be competitive against them.

And certainly cannabis is one of those things. When you can go out into your backyard and grow plants that might be able to alleviate issues that prescribed medications usually take care of. That could be a big mark to your bottom line. So, you know, I started using cannabis more after reading about it and getting into it, but it’s still somewhat infrequent. I guess my favorite strain today would be Headband, which is something I recently tried in Denver, and I thought it was amazing! But I’m not an expert by any means, and I don’t claim to be.

Is your interest in cannabis culture connected to your interest in music in any way?

Not really, no. As a matter of fact, I have to say this … When I was younger, I had issues with people that smoked too much. Everything is great in moderation, and I don’t advocate to the point of being completely stoned out on the couch. I mean, look – occasionally that’s OK. But when I was trying to make it in a rock band, I was looking for guys that were committed to what we were doing, and not committed to getting stoned.

I’m from Miami, Florida, and there was a lot of drug use, and a lot of stoners! Some of the clichés, they ring true! You find yourself accomplishing very little, so I tried to stay away from that as much as I could. I don’t think cannabis and music, for me, had a big influence. On the other hand, I would say, “I liked writing music on cannabis.” When you smoke, it opens your mind up, it opens your creativity up. It opens a space you don’t necessarily have when you’re sober. It’s beneficial, but again, in moderation.

Could you tell us a bit about cannabis culture in the 70s/80s, and how it compares to today?

You know, I think it’s kind of similar, honestly! Other than it being much more sophisticated and accessible today, in the 70s, it felt much more illegal. It felt as if it was something dangerous. Today I don’t think of cannabis as very dangerous, but back then, you did seem like an outsider. There was a divide between those who smoked and those who didn’t. It was much more divided and polarizing than I think it is today.

Could you tell us more about The Legend of 420, why you made it and your thought process whilst making it?

Well, again I go back to my CEO recommending I make one. He’s an advocate, and I guess I’m an advocate, too now after reading about it and working on this film for over a year. Certainly, making the film, we have created an opportunity for folks who are curious about it or interested about it to get a little more information and insight as to where this industry is going and some of the players in it. And also, I think it’s a great film for those that do know about this stuff. It’s a great celebration of the culture.

We had a Denver premiere a few nights ago, and a woman from Oklahoma where they have the strictest and most draconian drug law – she’s a State Senator running for Governor. She came to Colorado to understand more about the cannabis culture, about whether it’s been working for Colorado, and she felt there’s been a lot of government persecution with people of color and whatnot.

Anyway, she saw the film and spoke to me afterwards and said, “I want to show this film to our Legislator. I want them to see this.” To have an audience like that for a film like ours would be incredible, but I think it’s a good film for the moment. There’s been some good “pot docs” [pot documentaries] around, but this one is dealing with the current culture and this transition from illegal to legal.

Peter Spirer with Producers
From L-R: Peter Spirer, Mark Schulze, Jake Gordon and Ryan Bloom.

So, have your views changed on the cannabis plant changed since you were younger? (Not that you were ever against it in the first place!)

Yeah, my views have changed! They’ve changed dramatically. Before I started this documentary, I thought cannabis was a great way to relax, a great way to open your mind up a little bit if you wanted to be creative and that kind of stuff. It’s a great escape, too.

However, I didn’t realize the significant medical benefit cannabis can provide. I mean, that is really an astounding thing. One of the things I came across was PubMed. PubMed is the gold standard for research and is an arm of the National Institute of Health (NIH). And that’s where much of the research is done for emerging drugs. I knew of similar publications for these drugs that big pharmaceuticals had. But when I went on there [PubMed], I saw that there’s nearly 25,000 peer reviewed papers on cannabis. That’s astounding!

Compare that to Tylenol or Ibuprofen or aspirin – they have a few hundred papers! So the medical benefits – and look, there are negatives, too, such as the carcinogens and that young people under 25 without medical need shouldn’t necessarily be smoking – but the good far, far outweighs the bad. And I think it’ll be considered one of the greatest benefits of our lifetime.

And making the film, unfortunately, the population that could best benefit from cannabis legalization is the elderly, who stand to gain the most out of medical marijuana but are often the most against it. But there’s been such a stigma against it … You know, people like my mother, who were on all these drugs, and she thinks they’re good for, that they’re helping her. And they may be, but at the same time, the side-effects are so significant, and then I think about cannabis where there’s so little toxicity, it’s mind-boggling to me. It really is mind-boggling, and shame on our government for creating these laws that we’ve exported to foreign countries. Now we’ve started legalization, these foreign countries have legacy of the laws we’ve helped develop. And they’re killing people over this stuff.

When people say, “Cannabis is a gateway to other drugs.” Well, that’s not true, but it certainly is a gateway to prison! I’ve become quite upset when I listen to people speak about this stuff who have no clue as to what they’re talking about. Most people are giving you their opinion – and I’m giving you my opinion – but very little is based on fact and science.

You talked about working with pharmaceuticals. I would say things like OxyContin are proof of the success of marketing as opposed to a success of medication …

Yeah … Look, we’ve spent a little time learning about the side-effects of those drugs. It’s just crazy that these drugs – if you take them, you die! If you overdose on them, you die. This really hits home to me, because I wish I’d done this film 5 years ago. My brother passed away 3 years ago, and he passed away from Propofol. He had some burns, and he overdosed on the medication they gave him to treat his pain. I just cannot believe it. I just cannot believe it.

You know, I would have just urged him to do cannabis instead. Just smoke it, use it however you want. That’s the time when you just get stoned. If you’re in that amount of pain, just try to avoid opiates. Even aspirin can kill you. No amount of cannabis can kill you. They don’t have one documented case [from cannabis alone]. That’s different from every other intoxicant, including alcohol. All of these things can kill you, and you can’t die from too much cannabis. So to even put it in the same category … It’s just unjust, in my opinion.

Could you tell us any more about what you’ve learned about cannabis since making the documentary?

Well, certainly it’s a boom industry. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve been to Denver now over the course of a year, and just the amount of prosperity and growth … It’s unreal. I mean, the only thing I could compare it to is the gold rush. Now they have a “green rush”. Speaking to the owners of businesses. I’ll give you a great story.

I’ve met with the biggest attorney in the cannabis industry, a guy named Bob Hoban. Five or six satellite offices around the world, and he employs right now around 60 attorneys. There’s another company housed on his floor – and they have beautiful, Art Deco-style offices in Denver – and I was marvelling at this guy’s office. And Bob says, “Yeah, you know, 6 months ago, we were on the other side of this floor, and there was an oil and gas company where we are now. They loved the building and they loved being here, but they needed to downsize. We were growing, so we just said, ‘Why don’t we switch?’ I’m in the cannabis industry, and we’re growing; they’re in the oil & gas industry, and they’re getting smaller.”

So I thought, “That’s cool! The oil & gas companies are on their way out. Cannabis, on the other hand, is growing.” But all of the new products coming out, all of these new things. These companies are put under tremendous hardship in terms of their banking regulations and everything else, what they can write off as a business and so on. Yet, they’re succeeding wildly.

You know, when that changes … Well, here’s my stock tip for you: if you really want to make money in the future, find any cannabis-related stock or investment, because it’s going to be out-of-control. I did the numbers with some of these companies, the profit margins and the amount of money they are making. Even with the hardship of these regulations, it’s phenomenal.

Poster for the film, The Legend of 420
Legend of 420 poster.

So where do you see cannabis in, say, 5 years’ time, then?

I see it as one of the biggest industries we have going. I see it employing a lot of Americans. I see it legal in virtually every state. If you’re not a state that is legalizing cannabis, expect a lot of your citizens – which they’re already doing – leaving. We have cannabis refugees in America. People who are unable to get this stuff for their kid to stop their seizures, or the war vet who has PTSD, or a million other things going on. It’s unbelieveable that you have to leave the state that you grew up in and loved, because of these draconian laws. It has got to change.

If alcohol is going to be legal and available, then cannabis has to be legal and available, and less regulated, in my opinion.

Peter Spirer with Tommy Chong, Legend of 420.
Peter with our good friend, Tommy Chong.

You probably know the drill by now – we talked a lot longer than this. We spoke about Peter’s first time seeing Public Enemy live, Nixon’s War on Drugs and a little bit more about the documentary (we don’t want to give you spoilers, so go see it).

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