Director Riley Morton Talks About Washington’s Road To Legalization

By David Rheins

In just a couple of weeks Washington’s first recreational marijuana retail establishments will open for business, and if Colorado‘s booming new marketplace is any indication, the Green Rush will bring much needed jobs, tax revenues and liberty to the Evergreen State.  But the optimism about the nascent industry’s prospects were not always so rosy.

The tale of how Washington passed its historic voter initiative (I-502) giving adults 21+ the right to possess and smoke marijuana, and setting the groundwork for a state regulated commercial marketplace — petty politics, contentious factions, medical marijuana dissenters and random naysayers included — is the subject of Riley Morton and Nils Cowan’s documentary, “Evergreen: The Road To Legalization.”  The film debuted last week in New York and Denver, and will be featured at SIFF in the Seattle later this month. I wanted to check Riley’s pulse to see how he was feeling about the future of legal weed.

Q: Washington first recreational pot shops are expected to open the second week of July. Your film, Evergreen: The Road To Legalization, ends with some rather skeptical predictions about the success of the nascent industry.  How optimistic are you that Washington State will be able to create a viable marketplace?

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A: I’m actually fairly optimistic about it. The WLCB process has definitely left a lot to be desired, but i do think that we’re headed in the right direction, and within a few years, the recreational stores will be accomplishing most of the goals that i502 tried to accomplish. I have little expectation that any government agency can get anything right on it’s first try. So its almost unreasonable to assume that there won’t be any growing pains and inequities in the system. The fact that we are having this discussion at all would have blown my mind 5 short years ago.

Q: What do you say to critics who suggest that your film portrays the medical marijuana movement in a rather negative light, and does not adequately give credit to activists who’ve been fighting in the trenches for years so that I-502’s passage would be possible?

A: I’d say that this film is as objective as realistically possible covering this story. We give plenty of air time to all sides of the issue, and let them convey their messages. We aren’t creatively editing anyone’s message and there is no voice over in the film leading the audience in any way. Regarding the activists, given that our main goal is to tell a compelling story, i think we did a great job including folks like Jeff Steinborn, Doug Hiatt, and Vivian McPeak in the film. We let them all say their piece and presented it without bias in the film. It’s hard for me to imagine a reasonable person objecting to the film in this way.

Q: Travel personality and NORML Board member Rick Steves, who plays a major role in the film as one of the financial backers of I-502, was also a financial backer of the film.  We heard you funded the documentary via Kickstarter, and when you were shy of your goal, he wrote a check for the balance. True?

A: Not exactly. In the summer of 2012, Rick Steves heard we were having trouble with financing and wrote us a check for $10k. In the real world of feature documentary production, this is a very small portion of an overall film budget. The crucial part was the timing. At this stage, no one really believed that this was a real story, and our prospective broadcast partners weren’t putting any money into the film at all. Nils and I were ready to throw in the towel after our failed Kickstarter, and he basically rescued the project singlehandedly. Rick had (and wanted) exactly zero editorial control. He was never in our edit suite, and he never even saw a cut until the film was festival ready. His money came with no strings attached, and it was essentially a gift because he saw that we were trying to tell an important story, and we were doing so in an ethical and responsible way.

We knew that we’d come under criticism for accepting the donation, but faced with the prospect of not making any film at all after over a year of work on the project, it was a decision we felt like we had to make.


Q: Your film recently debuted in New York, how was that?

A: It was really fun. I love that town. A bunch of the EVERGREEN crew made it out there, and on the premiere night itself, Ethan Nadelmann from the Drug Policy Alliance showed up and held court after the film about the legalization efforts in Uruguay, Jamaica, and right here in the U.S.A.

Q: You’ll be showcased at SIFF, what do you have planned?

A: We’ll be doing a lot of Q and A’s with the filmmakers and subjects opening weekend, and are working on a big after party for Friday Night 6/27. Folks can sign up for our newsletter at for details as they become available.

Q: Will we the film be available on DVD or Netflix soon?

A: DVD will be out towards the end of the summer, and we’re hoping for Netflix and other streaming outlets shortly thereafter. But the best thing that your audience can do to ensure eventual placement on Netflix is show up at the Seattle screenings the week of 6/27. We need sizable audiences to prove that there is an audience for films like this, and that is best done with box office receipts.