Spike Jonze Directs a Moving Exhibit Through America's Relationship with Cannabis

From counterculture to culture

MedMen, a cannabis dispensary present in six states, has released "The New Normal," directed by Spike Jonze and featuring actor Jesse Williams. 

The work is a slow-moving trip through America's fraught history with cannabis sales, styled as a series of museum exhibits. It also likens the illegalization and demonization of cannabis to Prohibition, with consequences just as far-reaching. 

"When I read the premise about telling the story of the history of cannabis and our country, there was something that moved me about it. I apologize for using such a 2010's word, but it felt healing to me," Jonze says. "I didn't know much about the specifics of the history, but as I learned about it, I felt like it was a story of a very dysfunctional couple. The relationship started in such a healthy place, with even our Founding Fathers having hemp farms, but it got so tragically messed up in the 80 years of prohibition that we couldn't see straight."

The New Normal - A Short by Spike Jonze - MedMen

The film's artful, slow-moving nature couches the blow of more intense tableaux—and while the narrator moves away from those quickly, the images maintain the same pace, lending the impression that we already know about the uglier parts already. 

This is part of what makes it strong: It makes the absence of knowledge worse. The often-violent policies meant to discourage cannabis use and sales mostly resulted in racial profiling, the bloating of the prison system and the self-justification of numerous harmful stereotypes. Some years ago, Jay Z narrated a short documentary with the Drug Policy Alliance, elaborating on just this topic.

"It was shocking to just sit in all the stories of so many people and so many lives that were unfairly hurt by the prohibition and the fear that was stoked by it, especially people of color. And it wasn't just their lives, it was their families, too," Jonze continues. "And now we are starting to come out of it. We are at that point in a relationship where a couple is calming down after a fight and realizing how irrational they were and trying to make amends."

The ad starts with the story of George Washington's hemp farm and explores Reefer Madness. It marches tranquilly toward what it calls "The New Normal," a place where cannabis is divested of all this baggage and exposed for what it is—a product that's often really helpful, purchased by pretty generic-looking people (... including my parents, that one time they described trying to "spice up" their marriage—let's not talk about this anymore). 

"I've never been into pot much or a huge advocate for legalization, but I've always supported it because it seemed absurd for the reasons we all know. And it always felt inevitable," Jonze goes on. "But getting to do this, I got to learn the bigger picture of the whole story. I feel so hopeful, but the thing that sticks with me and upsets me is that there are still so many people that are still locked up for this plant that is now legal in so many places. That doesn't make sense." 

The ad doesn't really go into those politics, focusing instead on MedMen's larger vision of a healthier, happier society where cannabis is legal, regulated and safe. And while little has been done about the cannabis users and petty dealers already in prison, politicians tacitly acknowledge Jonze's point: Last May, mayor Bill de Blasio of New York told police to cease marijuana-related arrests, acknowledging a change in tide. New York police commissioner James O'Neill previously also admitted an imbalance in terms of who gets the ol' stop-and-frisk: "There are differences in arrest rates, and they have persisted going back many years."

Jesse Williams co-wrote the film with Jonze and will appear in MedMen's in-house magazine, Ember. The latter's fourth volume will be free with purchases starting today (Feb. 25), and will also be distributed at select boutiques, hotels and restaurants, as well as Barnes & Noble bookstores. Other collaborators include cinematographer Bradford Young and production designer James Chinlund, currently working on the upcoming Lion King movie.

"The highly selective criminalization of one plant, with flagrantly harsher punishments for one community, must be acknowledged and left behind for something more reasonable, realistic and fair," Williams says. "It's pretty clear that Americans are ready to exist beyond a few inherited hypocrisies. We deserve the opportunity to make this right. We can do, and feel, better."

The release of "The New Normal" will mark the first time MedMen advertises in movie theaters in California, Nevada and Michigan. Support will include spots on connected TV networks, out-of-home assets, print ads, Sirius XM, radio and podcast placement; and native integrations with Complex. 

Jonze will also work with filmmaker Molly Schiot to create a short documentary exploring the themes of the film in greater detail. Per MedMen, these larger stories will include veterans who self-treated with cannabis, former law enforcement officials, formerly incarcerated drug offenders and young cannabis entrepreneurs.

CEO and co-founder Adam Bierman of MedMen calls this ad an "opportunity to make a statement" on the national stage. 

"Cannabis is part of our country's history," he says. "We've moved away from the propaganda of the past and into a world where cannabis is the new normal. We want this commercial to educate and embolden in equal measures."

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Angela Natividad
Angela Natividad is a founding contributor to Muse. She is also the co-founder of esports agency Hurrah.gg, and co-author of Generation Creation.