As talk of legalization swept through California’s Humboldt and Mendocino counties in 2016, local marijuana growers remained cautiously optimistic. After decades of helicopter flyovers, DEA raids, and living life in the shadows, growers traded fears of prosecution for anxiety over what an influx of big money could do to their hard-won industry. Filmed over four years, “Lady Buds” profiles some of the most respected women weed growers in California, following an eclectic group of pioneers and family farmers throughout this turning point in the marijuana industry. While a few characters are as colorful as one would imagine, most are simply hard-working entrepreneurs trying to stay afloat. The feminist film does their stories justice through an empathetic if disappointingly dry lens.
Filmmaker Chris J. Russo became interested in the subject matter after reading a statistic that women held 36 percent of leadership positions in the cannabis industry, the highest percentage of any other emerging market in the U.S. Focusing on six main subjects, plus a few supporting characters, “Lady Buds” struggles to find a human narrative, even among a plethora of eccentrics. Dropping a couple of stories would have allowed more time for personal flourishes, and could have gone a long way to turning “Lady Buds” from a conventional but informative documentary into an entertaining character study framed around a hot button issue.
Emerging as the most memorable personalities are The Bud Sisters — exuberant best friends Pearl and Dr. Joyce — who inspire awe and respect from local growers in Humboldt county. With rotating styles of brilliant pink and purple hair, Pearl sends sparks through the film with every husky belly laugh, with Dr. Joyce as her loyal hype woman. Pearl delivers the most fun scene in the film, when she serves as a judge of the Golden Tarp Awards, sniffing and sampling each strain with the seriousness of a Parisian-trained sommelier. It’s heartwarming to see the look on her face when the event surprises her with the Ganjier Award, her short acceptance speech beginning with: “I’m really fuckin’ high.” The friendship of Pearl and Dr. Joyce could probably merit their own movie, though that would be a very different film.
As a second-generation Cannabis farmer with longtime roots in Mendocino County, Chiah Rodriques is another standout figure of the film. She and her husband run the family farm together, juggling raising two adolescent sons with a grueling work schedule. Rodrigues provides a window into Mendocino’s wild west past, recalling being told not to discuss what her father did for a living and the terrifying sounds of helicopters hovering overhead. As big agriculture encroaches on the cannabis industry, it’s heartbreaking to see the family struggle to collect payments from distributors while grappling with burdensome new growing regulations.
The focus shifts away from growers to include the equally inspiring Felicia Carbajal, a queer Latinx activist who began illegally delivering weed to her friends dying of AIDS in San Francisco. It’s Carbajal who explains how it was LGBTQ activists who began the fight for medical marijuana with California’s Prop 215, or the Compassionate Use Act of 1996. As a formerly incarcerated activist running for office, Carbajal rounds out the film by presenting a much-needed and often overlooked perspective.
More than a solely feminist film, “Lady Buds” is a portrait of how easily ad carelessly small farmers were swept away by big agriculture in the years following legalization. When a Humboldt County Sheriff plainly explains how “Only the strong will survive,” it’s the most compassionate that particular idiom has ever sounded. Between waves of wildfires, bureaucratic barriers, and devaluing product, most of the businesses profiled in “Lady Buds” don’t survive. It’s a wrenching look at the perils of prohibition, and who wins when all is said and done.
“Lady Buds” is available on VOD from Gravitas Ventures.