High for Science: Canadian film The Marijuana Conspiracy uncovers little-known and shocking government cannabis experiment

Although it has been less than three years since the recreational use of cannabis was legalized under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s watch, the thought of a government-ordered research project to study women under the influence of pot seems like an archaic subplot from the 1936 propaganda film-turned cult hit Reefer Madness.

However, that is exactly what the provincial government in Ontario did in 1972 with a bizarre project, where participants were selected to go into isolated captivity and mandated to smoke weed regularly for three months as scientists noted the psychological and behavioural effects of getting stoned.

“Very little is known about this story and all the real women who went through it felt very upset by that because they went through so much,” says filmmaker Craig Pryce, who now captures the obscure tale in the fictional film The Marijuana Conspiracy, streaming starting April 20, fittingly. “I felt there were some injustices that needed to be told about this and it just had so many elements that intrigued me including what went on back in that time.”

What did go on was 20 volunteers were divided into two groups, half of which were instructed to smoke cannabis twice a night with an ever increasing dose of THC over 98 days. 

Over that time, the women were instructed to work on macramé crafts to observe their productivity while their behaviour was analyzed. Additionally, their urine and blood was so routinely tested that each participant was given a doctor’s note at the end of the project to acknowledge that the track marks on their arms were caused from a “clinical investigation” and not from suspected heroin use.

While the film is based on the true experiences of five of those women, much of the truth is actually unknown about the project since results of the study have never been followed up. In fact, during The Marijuana Conspiracy’s recent swing on the film festival circuit, Pryce found most people shocked to learn of the project and how demonized the drug actually was in those days.

“Boomers were almost nostalgic in a sense because they really relate to what was going on back then,” says Pryce of the controversy surrounding marijuana use in the early 1970s. “(But) a lot of millennials had really intelligent questions (after screenings) and they couldn’t believe what was going on back then.”

But Pryce also admits the legalization of cannabis today doesn’t make the film any less relevant to current issues surrounding weed. 

“It’s legal here but it is so regulated that it’s almost not,” says Pryce. He adds the unabashedly Canadian film also plays across borders for many of the issues surrounding marijuana, especially in America. 

“In the States, congress has already passed a bill — it’s called the MORE Act — to legalize it federally there and they look to us in Canada as someone who’s done it successfully, so there’s a lot of parallels between the two countries,” adds Pryce. 

“Also a big part of it, which we touch on in our film is the expungement. There are so many people still in jail today for — not selling marijuana but possession of marijuana — and this is true to Canada back then. If you had possession (in 1972), it was seven years in jail.”

Those are certainly still hot-button issues in America today and, likely for that reason alone, major distributor Samuel Goldwyn Films has picked up the US rights for The Marijuana Conspiracy.

“We’re thrilled with Goldwyn having the film because they’re known for quality indie and art films, so just that sort of association is really good for the film,” says Pryce, anticipating that The Marijuana Conspiracy will continue to win over young audiences by uncovering relevant issues from the past.

“I think it’s very relatable because the essence of it really is the young women and what they endured and how they were faced with the agendas and manipulations of the government at the time,” says Pryce. “And I think that’s also very current now.”

The Marijuana Conspiracy will be released on streaming services April 20.