Chris J. Russo’s documentary Lady Buds (2021), chronicles the legalisation and commercialisation of cannabis after the state of California passed “Proposition 64” in 2016. This chapter in the evolution of the US cannabis industry is told from the perspective of a group of women: second-generation cannabis farmer Chiah Rodriques, retired school principal Sue Taylor, who dreams of opening a cannabis dispensary, Latinx queer activist Felicia Carbajal, entrepreneur Karyn Wagner, and cannabis pioneers, Pearl Moon and Dr. Joyce Centofanti, “The Bud Sisters”.
When the cannabis farmers, entrepreneurs, and activists discover the legislation has been written to favour big business, the story becomes less about fulfilling the promise of liberation from prosecution, instead holding onto their place in an industry ripe for acquisition by companies and individuals with deep pockets.
In conversation with PopMatters, Russo discusses how corporate America threatens democracy. She hopes her film may help provoke her audience to challenge the status quo by supporting local businesses, women-owned businesses, and local farmers.
Making a film is not easy, nor is it a short process. How do you look back on the experience of Lady Buds?
It’s not easy and I was a little naïve going into it [laughs]. I had no idea it was going to be four years of my life, but I was curious about this space. I felt it was rich storytelling, so I went with my intuition.
It’s not only about making the film, it’s about the life experience I went through while making it. I’m an adventurer at heart, and I’m dedicated and passionate about telling stories by women, about women, for women, and marginalised communities as a queer filmmaker myself.
I had to shelve the film during the pandemic which slowed me down, but only to rest, which was a good thing. No regrets, it was a challenge, but I’m proud of the film. It’s a beautiful portrait of resilient and courageous women going after their dreams, and the backdrop only happens to be cannabis.
Was the appeal of the project what you didn’t know about the subject, as much as what you already knew?
I live in California and when cannabis legalisation was on the ballot in 2016 I was curious. Legalising cannabis, we were going to have a shift in the way we think about it. It was going to be normalised and the economy was going to be boosted here in California, or at least that’s what I thought. I researched to figure out which way I was going to vote, and I read a statistic somewhere that said 36 percent of leadership roles in cannabis were filled by women. I was pleasantly surprised and intrigued, so I started to go to cannabis networking mixers and farmers’ markets.
I’ve had a relationship with cannabis since I was 14. It’s not that it’s my whole life, but I was intrigued that there’s a lot of women in this subculture that we think of as a bro culture. I started to interview these women and learn how passionate they were about the plant. Everyone’s origin story in cannabis is fascinating, and for many of these women, they risked their freedom for decades to grow the plant and to work in that industry.
As a queer person, I feel like an outlier the way I walk through the world. This subculture used to say, or still says, “We’re coming out of the shadows to enter the light, to live our authentic lives in the legal market.” I related to that with coming out of the closet.
I interviewed over 100 people. I wanted to choose the most diverse voices because cannabis touches on different communities, topics, and issues. This is how it all started and the women invited me up to their farms. When you’re invited to a cannabis farm, you go [laughs].
Gaining their trust, I kept the cameras rolling. My curiosity continued to take me deeper into their lives and finally, I came up with the framework to film the one year leading up to legalisation, and the one year after. The film would capture this historic moment through the eyes of six women, to see how they would survive against big business coming in.
It felt like I was called to make this movie. It was a moment in time, and with documentaries, there is a sense of, ‘Pick up your camera and start shooting,’ and that’s how it happened.
I come from the scripting world. I’d been working on some scripts, and those are even harder to get going. Lady Buds was supposed to be an interim thing that ended up being four years.
The film looks at how we want to be progressive, but any progress is vulnerable to capitalism. If every generation has to work at democracy, then every generation has to work toward creating social progress.
Part of the film’s message is we need to keep working for change, to keep questioning things and fighting back. When I saw [former Speaker of the House] John Boehner say it’s time to get into cannabis, it was shocking because only a few years ago he was putting people in jail for cannabis crimes. I thought this is about corporate America taking over a counter-culture movement.
Cannabis is a symbol of counter-culture if ever there was one. When you have people jumping on the bandwagon, coming in with millions of dollars to make money off the backs of these small farmers, that have been farming off the grid for decades, there’s something that doesn’t add up. To your point, you could see that there was progress and progressive thinking along the lines of normalising and legalising cannabis, but with this undercurrent of capitalism gone awry, there’s a disconnect.
I wanted to highlight the irony of big business coming in and trying to overtake this symbol of outliers and counterculture, which came out of the 1960s and ’70s. People grew cannabis to survive, they were living off the grid in northern California and across the country.
The war on drugs put people of colour in jail who were using cannabis. We now have a lot of work to do, to get people out of jail who were incarcerated for small cannabis crimes. We need to expunge the records of people that were affected. It’s a ripple effect that affects the ability of people who have been formally incarcerated to be a part of our society today.
Hopefully, my film can honour the people that started it all. Hopefully, it will make people think about the repercussions of capitalism coming in and taking over and will undo some of this history, getting the reparations and social equity programmes going for the people that should be a part of this industry, in a fair and equitable industry.
As we’re seeing in capitalism and industrialisation today, it’s not always fair. The regulations in California were skewed to benefit corporations with a lot of backing, so they could ride out this wave of the industry. Sadly, it’s pushing a lot of the smaller farmers and businesses out.
It suggests the counterculture has to remain an alternative to the mainstream. To try and integrate the two would see the mainstream consume the counterculture. The irony is the small growers had to live in fear of the law and after legalisation they’re pushed out. That’s often what happens when we try to merge two opposing ways of being.
There are some positives coming out of this. There’s this crazy disconnect with big business, but on the other hand, normalising cannabis and creating products that have consistent results, could medically benefit many people. It’s not just black and white.
I wish there was a way to coexist, and have the regulations and the legislations that are now being crafted across the country, that consider the people in the community that have been operating in this space for decades, so they’re not squeezed out. This film is a cautionary tale, to consider how we can write legislation that’s inclusive, not only benefiting the larger corporations. I hope people see this as a cautionary tale because it reflects what’s happening in the United States, where corporate capitalism is taking over our democracy.
This only happens to be about cannabis, but we’re seeing this over and over again. We saw this in the dairy industry; we see this in other agricultural areas. I’m hoping people watch my film and think about what’s going on and speak up to challenge the status quo, and support local businesses, women-owned businesses, and local farmers.
As a cautionary tale, Lady Buds explores the reality of the “American Dream” in a capitalist society. Would you agree that it’s a myth, an idealised dream or wish?
The “American Dream” symbolises manifest destiny or trying to build something yourself, to be a part of the economy, and to be self-sustaining as a small business, or as an independent operator. The “American Dream” can be applied to any business sector, but decades ago it represented this idea that whatever your dreams, if you could put your mind to it, you could open that shop up; you can be that entrepreneur.
It was definitely an idealised idea, but this country was founded on small businesses – it’s what America was supposed to be operated by. Only in the last couple of decades have we had to fight against these conglomerates and monopolies.
Corporations have more protections than humans now. It’s backward, and I use the euphemism that these women wanted a piece of their own “American Dream”, which just happens to be cannabis. It’s ironic that a plant that used to be illegal could now be a part of this idea of the “American Dream”. These women laid the foundations for that industry.
We had a 20-year working economic model in California, under the “Medical Marijuana Law” that was passed in 1996. It was quasi-legal, and when Prop 64 [“The Control, Regulate and Tax Adult Use of Marijuana Act”] came in, it disrupted that entire working economy. It skewed it so that only big businesses could survive because they had the money to pay the taxes and the licenses. In these regions where the smaller operators were for decades, they’re leaving, and these regions are now suffering economically.