Countless movies open with a title card informing the audience that what they’re about to see was “based on a true story” or “inspired by real events,” but very few movies have demanded such a notice as desperately as “Kid Cannabis.” It’s a tale of drugs, duplicity and murder that’s so crazed you almost don’t believe it actually happened. But it did, and right in our own backyard.
The events that sparked director John Stockwell’s film took place in Idaho in the early 2000s, when a group of teenagers and 20-somethings, led by Coeur d’Alene resident Nate Norman, were caught smuggling marijuana across the Canadian border. Police estimated that the crew had moved and sold upward of 17 tons – roughly $38 million worth – of pot in less than two years. Norman, then 21, was immediately identified as the ringleader and sentenced to 12 years in federal prison.
The story was first chronicled by writer Kevin Taylor for the Spokesman-Review beginning in 2003, and it was later expanded for an Inlander cover story titled “Dreaming in Green: How the Young Become Drug Lords” in April 2005. Another piece about Norman’s drug empire, written by journalist Mark Binelli, ran in an October ’05 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, and both articles served as a basis for the “Kid Cannabis” screenplay, which Taylor said first came across his desk about eight years ago.
Filmed primarily in British Columbia, “Kid Cannabis” portrays Nate, played by Jonathan Daniel Brown, as a chubby, insecure stoner delivering pizzas to support his single mother and younger brother.
“In Coeur d’Alene, there was money all around but just out of reach,” Nate says in the film’s running voiceover narration, “teasing, taunting, just laughing at you for thinking you were going to get your hands on any of it.”
After reading an article about Canada’s laissez-faire marijuana laws, Nate develops a business model with his friend Christopher Clark (Kenny Wormald) that involves sneaking primo Canadian weed across the U.S. border and selling it for double what they paid. Before they know it, Norman and Clark have rounded up a posse who, clad in camouflage and cheap night-vision goggles, hop back and forth between Canada and Idaho in the dead of night. Within a matter of months, they’re millionaires.
“One of the things that I liked about the story most was the sense of industry these young guys had,” Taylor said. “I think they started with $1,600 to buy their first kilo of weed in Canada, sold it down here, doubled their money and then went back and bought two, then four, then eight. They built this thing on their own and didn’t need organized crime or shadowy financiers. … It just shows that the market for marijuana in America is just endless.”
In the film, Norman and his cohorts are shockingly cavalier with their money, buying speedboats, sports cars and huge houses overlooking Lake Coeur d’Alene, and Nate throws massive parties while his mother looks the other way. Their empire comes crashing down when Brendan Butler (Aaron Yoo), another young Idaho pot dealer, is murdered by the hitman he had hired to kill his competition, Norman.
Giovanni Mendiola, Butler’s killer, was sentenced to eight years to life in prison. (Taylor said Mendiola was eventually refused parole and that Norman has since been released from jail, though he can’t reveal his whereabouts.)
“(Nate) was so shocked that Brendan Butler would want to kill him,” Taylor said, recalling his first interview with Norman in a Bonner County Jail holding cell more than a decade ago. “He told me, ‘It’s just weed.’ This isn’t ‘The Wire.’ As far as Nate was concerned, the market was the market, and it was big enough for everybody.”
“Kid Cannabis” sticks more or less to the facts, though Stockwell’s screenplay has simplified and exaggerated certain details – for instance, Norman’s transformation from geek to wannabe drug lord, stripper girlfriend included, is glossed over, and a high-volume dealer played by Ron Perlman is a total fabrication. Taylor, who had yet to see the film, considers the story almost Shakespearean in its scope and the cruel irony of its outcome.
“There were a lot of people who were not at all smart about it,” Taylor said. “They were really short-sighted, they saw the potential for big money and they didn’t consider any risks. Nate and Christopher were really sharp about what they did. They practiced, they trained, they had plan A and plan B. I think at one point they told cops they were just kids playing paintballs in the woods. I was attracted to that side of the story more than the lifestyle part of it.”