A crop of female California cannabis dealers negotiate a newly opened market

'Lady Buds'

Source: Hot Docs

‘Lady Buds’

Dir: Chris J. Russo. US. 2021. 96 mins.

The decriminalisation of the recreational use of cannabis in the state of California in late 2016 had a seismic impact on an hitherto underground market. This enlightening documentary follows six women involved in California’s cannabis growth and distribution as they negotiate a transition from outlaw status to legit business, unpicking government regulations, licenses and bureaucracy; and threatened by the might of the deep-pocketed corporations which swoop in to claim a slice of the space cake.

The choice of characters is strong enough to ensure a broad and insightful overview of the subject

The first feature from Chris J. Russo takes a female-led look at a wider story, but in fact gender is less of a factor here than the broader issues of financial and racial inequality within US society. The American dream should be available to all, but in reality — or certainly as far as the budding canna-businesses indicates — it helps if your face fits or if you have a sizable safety net of investment to cushion the risks of negotiating a newly opened market. As such, the film has a kinship with Fresh, Ana Sofia Joanes’s account of small operators attempting to pursue sustainable agriculture, with Robert Kenner’s Academy Award-nominated Food, Inc, which cast a critical eye over agri-industrial practises, and perhaps most of all with Mondovino, Jonathan Nossiter’s exploration of the impact of globalisation on independent wine producers. It’s a picture which could attract considerable interest on the festival circuit and could find a home with specialist distributors or streaming platforms.

Anyone who approaches Lady Buds expecting it to be entirely populated by tie-dyed wackjobs will be surprised by the diversity of the characters. While the very likeable veteran farmers the Bud Sisters (lifelong friends and cannabis enthusiasts Pearl Moon and Dr. Joyce Centofanti) tick some of the expected stoner boxes, Sue Taylor, a soigne retired Catholic school principal turned cannabis educator and advocate, is more at home in a business suit than she is sporting dreamcatcher earrings. And aspiring entrepreneur Karyn Wagner recalls her early ventures in weed distribution, which involved hauling kilos of the stuff around in high-end designer shopping bags.

Falling between the two camps is the dynamic wife, mother and second-generation cannabis grower Chiah Rodriques, who sets up a collective of local farmers in Mendocino County, California, with the intention of promoting their produce as ‘artisanal’ and selling to the same provenance-obsessed consumers who habitually shop at Whole Foods. Then there’s the very intense cannabis activist Felicia Carbajal, who is lobbying for equity within the cannabis gold rush for black and Latinx businesses.

The immediate takeaway from the film is how incredibly stressed these women are, despite (presumably) having the capacity to get high on their own supply whenever necessary. It soon becomes clear that decriminalisation has had the result of flooding the market, pushing the prices down and making an already precarious living almost untenable for some. Plus, although California has decriminalised it, the cultivation of cannabis is still a federal crime. This means that banks refuse to handle canna-business accounts. It remains a cash economy. And, as Wagner discovers, large amounts of money couriered across the country run the risk of getting confiscated by the FBI. It’s an unforgiving business landscape, even before the California wildfires tear through the region.

There are issues: a prescriptive, hand-holding score overstates the emotional beats, and the film does have a tendency to repeat itself at times. That said, the choice of characters is strong enough to ensure a broad and insightful overview of the subject, which is explored in considerably more depth than might have been expected from a film which is packed to the gills with high-strength weed.

Production company: Paceline Pictures

International sales: CAA, amanda.lebow@caa.com

Producers: Christian Bruno, Michael J. Katz

Screenplay: Chris J. Russo, Tamara Maloney

Cinematography: Christian Bruno

Editing: Tamara Maloney, J. Davis

Music: Abby Posner