Documentaries can absolutely be and often are at their best when they adopt a political or controversial stance and commit to establishing a thesis to effectively persuade their audience of that perspective. Sometimes the weight of the argument is enough to carry a film all on its own, but other times documentarians feel the need to resort to exhibitionary quirks to sell their stance or, sadly enough, push a film to feature length. The Legend of 420 falls into both of these camps, acting as a compelling and nearly comprehensive argument in favor of marijuana legalization but also couching itself in ad hominem cultural pleas, narrative redundancies, and unfocused bridging of disparate points.
Through a combination of talking head interviews and small business tours, The Legend of 420 is a smorgasbord of arguments as to why marijuana should be legal. It points to the failure of the War on Drugs to do anything beyond imprison the young, the poor, and people of color, and it highlights a movement in the Western United States to not only legalize the drug for medicinal use, but also for recreational pleasures as well. The film exhibits everything from heartfelt testimonials of a medicinal savior when other medicines have failed to artistic expressions that the artists claim are a direct result of cannabinoid inspiration.
To lay out every argument the documentary makes would be doing its work for it, but each and every argument is well-reasoned and founded on factual evidence and the opinions of experts in medical and artistic fields, as well as legislators who actively criticize the actions of the Trump administration to crack down on marijuana as if it carries nearly the same social harm as drugs like cocaine or heroin. It’s compelling material that is hard to argue against even if one is predisposed against marijuana legalization.
This is why it’s so disheartening that The Legend of 420 does not treat marijuana’s critics with the requisite gravity to let its arguments stand against their criticisms. The filmmakers cut to only one interviewee critical of their stance, the representative of an anti-legalization group whom they only showcase to dismissively undercut through ironic editing. It’s all well and good to expose fools for what they are, but the film consequently fails to address medical concerns about the carcinogenic effects of cannabis or any sort of social consequence of freer access to the drug. This isn’t to say that the film doesn’t have the ammo to stand against such critiques, but it doesn’t demonstrate those strengths beyond a self-congratulatory stance of self-righteousness.
It further doesn’t help that the film becomes rather unfocused by the final third, jumping between marijuana-centric small businesses that redundantly hammer home the economic benefit of legalization without offering anything new beyond a tourism reel of places to visit in California and Colorado. It’s at this point the documentary feels less like a coherent thesis than an unapologetic celebration of its drug of choice. The arguments The Legend of 420 pushes are completely logical and well-reasoned, but by the end it seems less concerned with being seriously persuasive than it is with appealing to an audience that already agrees with its stance. If that’s the case, then why even make the film at all?