wEED wars

‘Weed Wars,’ put this in your pipe

By Tom Conroy
Nov 30, 2011

Most reality shows about workplaces feature relatively normal people trying to appear colorful and eccentric while handling trivial or manufactured crises. Discovery’s new series “Weed Wars” features colorful and eccentric people trying to appear relatively normal while handling real crises.

That alone would put the show at the top of its genre. Add to that its depiction of the reality behind what to most people is a serious but abstract issue: medical marijuana. The result is one of the rare workplace shows that are actually worth watching.

Premiering this Thursday, Dec. 1, at 10 p.m., “Weed Wars” focuses on the nation’s — and perhaps the world’s — largest distributor of medical cannabis, Harborside Health Center, located in Oakland, Calif. Its founder and executive director, Steve DeAngelo, is a glib, charismatic type who favors brimmed hats and styles his gray hair in two long braids.

But he’s not just an executive at the center; he’s also a customer. In fact, he says, everyone who works at the center is a “legal patient”: that is, someone with a doctor’s recommendation that he or she use cannabis for a medical condition.

This allows viewers to play a game that many of us haven’t played since college, or since our teenagers moved out: the “Are you high?”/“How high are you?” game.

Steve appears alert at all times. Meanwhile, his brother Andrew, the center’s general manager, has the nanosecond-delayed speech that’s familiar from the portrayal of stoners in TV or movie comedies.

Andrew has to deal with the main crisis in the first episode: Because of a new tax levied by the city of Oakland on medical-marijuana distributors, Harborside must immediately pay more than $1 million dollars.

Andrew and the center’s accountant, Luigi, are seen discussing how they’re going to address the city board. Although their prospects of getting the tax waived seem slim and they both are under serious pressure, each one takes time to partake of the center’s product.

They keep Steve posted, but he is distracted by a speech he’s going to be giving in San Francisco at something called the Marijuana Conference. The morning of the speech, he tells the camera that he’s running late, but he makes sure to stop by the center to pick up some “superpotent gingerbread.”

“One way of dealing with stress,” he tells the camera, “is just to sit there and suffer. Another way of dealing with it is to use a cannabis edible.”

The staffers repeatedly tell us that although they’re in compliance with state law, federal authorities could come in any day, shut the center down and put them in jail. “Every day you get to walk home not in handcuffs,” Andrew says, “that’s a good day.”

The show doesn’t dodge the question of whether many of the customers are putting the center’s product to nonmedical, or at least nonphysical, ends. An early montage shows buyers who range from cancer sufferers to a dazed but healthy-looking man who describes being surrounded by “a phantom halo of highness.”

Steve says that the pursuit of “wellness,” a term that he seems to give a very broad definition, is enough justification for someone to partake.

“I medicate every day,” says Andrew. “I’m not medicated to ‘get high.’ I’m medicated to feel well and to be well.”

We get a darker view of the drug through the episode’s portrayal of one of the center’s sales associates, a would-be writer named Terryn. He says that he goes home and smokes every night, partly to deal with the pressure he feels from his mother, a psychologist who worries that he’s not pursuing anything meaningful.

Although Terryn says that cannabis helps him clear his head to think about his goals, he seems to realize that it’s sapping any ambition he might have. He says that in his teens, when he first started smoking, “I didn’t want to be just some loser stoner in his 30s sitting on his couch playing videogames and taking bong hits.” Then he admits he basically fits that description now.

We see the sophisticated and expensive process of growing medical marijuana through a “patient farmer” named Jon, who says that he went into the business after quitting the subprime mortgage business, which he describes as far more corrupt.

Unlike most reality hours, this episode has more material than it can cover. It would be nice to learn more about a co-owner of Harborside, an old hippie type who wears skirts and calls himself Dave Wedding Dress. The economics of the center, a nonprofit business that offers social and health services to the community, merit further investigation.

Viewers with full DVRs might want to avoid watching the first episode, because “Weed Wars” could prove addictive.

Spotted at Media Life Magazine