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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Weed Wars

Illustration for article titled iWeed Wars/i
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Weed Wars debuts tonight on Discovery at 10 p.m. Eastern.

Weed Wars isn’t the type of documentary series that will grab you by the throat. It is, somewhat appropriately, a more subdued affair. Mellow, if you will. But don’t mistake the occasionally languid pace of this series for something without serious things to say. Instead of declaiming from on high, the show takes an appropriately sane approach to an increasingly insane subject: the medical dispensaries that have arisen since California legalized marijuana use for medicinal purposes in 1996. Rather than coming down authoritatively on one side or the other, Weed Wars lets the players, participants, politicians, and practitioners speak for themselves. Often, what is most fascinating isn’t what’s said, but rather what’s left unsaid.

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The lack of didacticism is refreshing, primarily because it lets the events in and around the Harborside Health Center speak for themselves. We meet many of the employees of the center, from Executive Director Steve DeAngelo, his general manager brother Andrew, their CFO Luigi, and various people all the way down to the buyers and cashiers. Many of these employees extol their business, and the good that it does for both its clients and the community at large. (As a non-profit, it legally has to redistribute excess income back into the surrounding neighborhoods.) But listen to these individuals long enough and you’ll see cracks in the veneer. Those cracks don’t come from them being perpetually high, although they almost inevitably are. After all, every employee that works at Harborside Health Center is him- or herself using marijuana for medicinal purposes. It’s like Hair Club for Men, only with pot.

Now, these people are by and large high-functioning individuals. But there’s also a sense that they are con artists in the same way that many of the people who walk into their dispensary for “medical ailments” are. DeAngelo and others talk about the cannabis plant and individual rights in ways that border on the religious. But at the end of the day, it’s clear that a lot of these people are pretty stoked to be getting high in a relatively legal manner. I use the word “relatively” since the première episode touches on the issues of federalism inherent in the titular wars: Even though California has legalized its use for medicinal value, the federal government could theoretically swoop in at any time to shut the organization down.

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We don’t get any such dramatic raid in tonight’s episode. Instead, we get something much more prosaic yet somehow more interesting: drama over a tax bill. Right off the bat, we enter Harborside Health Center at a time when new city legislation in Oakland (enacted via ballot vote) has raised taxation on all medical dispensaries significantly. We see Andrew and Luigi craft their strategy to avoid paying this bill in the name of unfair persecution, but it’s unclear if they actually believe that or are simply creating straw men in order get out of paying a bill they can’t afford. Scenes set inside the appeal hearing don’t cast light on the subject either way, and that’s a positive thing: rather than demonizing the city council, Weed Wars steps back and shows the curious intersection of legalized drugs, taxation, and the relationship between the two in the new economic world order.
Indeed, it’s that tense, always evolving relationship that forms the heart of what make Weed Wars interesting. There’s a banality to Harborside’s attempts to avoid paying this tax bill, but that banality in and of itself shows just how much is unknown about the slow legalization of marijuana as it impacts local, state, and even federal economies. Some might have voted on that ballot initiative as a way to make operating a dispensary prohibitively costly. But others might have voted on it simply to get a bigger piece of the pie for their city. In my home state of Massachusetts, debates over the validity of casinos within state borders has changed as funds have dried up. What is unthinkable for many now seems inevitable. And that inevitability has created some interesting economic opportunities, not only for those in city government looking to fill their coffers but also legalized growers who can sell to an ever-larger (and legal) base of consumers. (Harborside grossed $21 million in 2010.)

One of these growers, Terryn, also works as a cashier at Harborside. Of all those on camera tonight, his is the smallest and yet most powerful story. Here’s a man that sheds layer after layer throughout the hour, revealing ever-more self-awareness, self-pity, and self-loathing with each scene. If the majority of the employees at Harborside demonstrate great charisma masking great mischief, Terryn is the face of those for whom marijuana brings both pleasure and pain. It’s not that he’s addicted to the drug, but he’s unable to see past a life in which a 40-hour day job is followed by a 60-hour night job in which he carefully cultivates his own plants for future sale. Terryn’s mom, a psychologist, looks upon him with sadness, but never looks down upon him. She wants better for her son, but it’s clear he wants better for himself as well.

The very title of this series indicates that more substantial threats will come down the pipe on Weed Wars. But there’s a human-scale drama right now that need not be escalated simply to create more compelling television. “Every day you get to walk home, not in handcuffs, is a good day,” says Andrew near the end of tonight’s hour. He says this after the solution to the tax problem, which does not get resolved in an unexpected way. The threat will always be there for these men and women, and that threat informs every interaction inside the dispensary and out. But we don’t have to see that threat bust down the door anytime soon. Just watching these people live with that looming over them is enough for now.

Stray observations:

  • You’re not gonna believe this, but Snoop Dogg sings the title song for this show. Shocking, I know.
  • Those looking for Cheech and Chong-esque hijinks will be sadly disappointed. At one point, Steve DeAngelo eats a pot brownie on the way to a speaking engagement, but performs beautifully once there.
  • One of the partners at Harborside is named Dave Weddingdress. That appears to be his legal name. And yes, he wears a dress at all times, though more of a tie-dyed number than a fetching white one.
  • Not only does Harborside sell pot you can smoke, but it also sells plenty of edible goods, lotions, salves, and even seeds to grow yourself. My favorite strain? The “Julius Caesar,” apparently for when you want to get high and then stabbed by a close friend.
  • “There are people come in that have less… clear… medical issues.”
  • “I’m a pagan. I’m a wizard. This is just more comfortable.”
  • “Something has to change.”
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