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News (Media Awareness Project) - US CA: California's Pot Economy Explored In 2 TV Shows
Title:US CA: California's Pot Economy Explored In 2 TV Shows
Published On:2011-11-29
Source:San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Fetched On:2011-11-30 06:02:48

Weed Wars: Reality series. 10 p.m. Thurs. on Discovery Channel.

National Geographic Investigates: Marijuana Gold Rush: Documentary. 9
p.m. Fri. on National Geographic Channel.

It says a lot about how complicated the national debate on marijuana
has become that, even together, two new documentaries airing this week
barely cover certain aspects of the topic.

One of the challenges facing the producers of both "Weed Wars," a
real-life series premiering Thursday on the Discovery Channel, and
National Geographic Channel's "Marijuana Gold Rush," a one-off airing
Friday, is that the national debate has intensified in just the past
two months. On Oct. 7, the federal government's announcement of plans
to crack down on medical marijuana dispensaries sent the
billion-dollar industry into panic mode - the collective equivalent of
swallowing the roach.

But even the perceived moment of clarity from the feds doesn't really
help anyone sort out the issues - moral, financial, legal and medical
- - which have only become more complicated since California became the
first state in the nation to legalize pot for medical use in 1996.
Since then, 15 other states and the District of Columbia have
legalized the sale of medical marijuana, but federal law still
classifies the plant as an illegal substance, and the Supreme Court
has sided with the feds.

The lack of resolution to the debate between the federal government
and the states has not only enabled the industry to grow to such an
extent that it rivals illegal drug sales, it has also further
complicated the debate itself. The longer it continues, the higher the
financial stakes become for revenue-starved local and state
governments, and the more the quasi-legal medical pot industry becomes
further entrenched in the states' economies.

What the two documentaries airing this week have in common is that
they are largely about the financial side of the pot debate. "Weed
Wars," whose producers, including Chuck Braverman, have filmed four
episodes so far and may film more, focuses exclusively on Harborside
Health Center in Oakland.

Said to be the world's largest legal dispensary of medical marijuana,
Harborside does about $21 million of business annually and is one of
the many legal dispensaries in California that contribute to the $100
million in sales tax the state gets from the pot business. And that
doesn't count the amount assessed by the city of Oakland, an issue
that consumes Steve DeAngelo, Harborside's executive director, and his
staff in the first episode of "Weed Wars."

At issue in "Weed Wars" is whether the new tax imposed by Oakland has
to be paid "in advance," as the city terms it, or retroactively for
the previous year, which is how DeAngelo and his staff see it. When
the law was passed, DeAngelo argues, the city promised the tax would
not be retroactive. While his argument may have semantic logic, he
learns again that you can't really fight city hall, something of which
he's well aware after years of working as an advocate for

While it's enlightening to see how Harborside operates and to meet the
people who make it work, like Harborside co-founder David Weddingdress
(he long ago decided he was more comfortable not having to deal with
trousers), the focus of "Weed Wars" is sometimes frustratingly narrow.

Financial aspect

The financial aspect of the pot debate is viewed only through the lens
of Harborside having to raise more than $1 million quickly in order to
stay in business. Only by implication are we allowed to consider how
much legalized pot already contributes to the economy and how much
more it could contribute with better regulation. And as further
evidence of how quickly the medical pot debate is ramping up, on Oct.
5 Harborside was hit with a $2.5 million bill in back taxes from the
IRS, more than twice as much as it has to raise in the first episode
of "Weed Wars" to pay Oakland.

Also by implication, though, we can't help but consider the validity
of medical marijuana itself.

We could conclude that someone suffering from a chronic, terminal or
debilitating illness may seem to have a justifiable reason to get
medical marijuana, but we also meet Terryn, one of the Harborside
clerks who looks at his nightly joint as a way of unwinding after a
hard day's work.

One might argue that it's the same as having a perfectly legal martini
after work. Yet, his mother, a psychologist, is still hoping her son
will do something more substantial with his life. For his part, Terryn
wants to settle down, but somehow he hasn't gotten around to it.

As we learn in "Marijuana Gold Rush," it doesn't take much to get a
doctor's OK for medical pot. One doctor attending Mendocino's annual
Emerald Cup pot growers' contest proudly announces he's never said no
to anyone asking for a prescription.

While the nation debates medical marijuana, let's not fool ourselves
into thinking it's only about something for "medicinal purposes," as
they used to say with a knowing wink about hooch during Prohibition.
The debate is really about decriminalizing marijuana altogether, with
one side arguing that pot is no more harmful than booze and, more
important in a time of stubbornly enduring recession, legalization can
reap incredible financial rewards for all levels of government and
even put people back to work.

Prohibition parallels

Coincidentally, as we learned from the Ken Burns-Lynn Novick
"Prohibition" documentary this year, economic reasons had much to do
with the repeal of the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act in the
previous century. They could have a similar impact on pot laws in this

Written and directed by Marc Shaffer, "Marijuana Gold Rush" is
arguably the more informative of the two films because it looks at
various levels of the pot business in Northern California to show how
many people are actively involved in it as part of the "marijuana
green rush." We meet "ganjapreneurs" Dhar Mann and Derek Peterson at
the start of the film as they dive headfirst into creating a kind of
Home Depot for pot growers called WeGrow. Their goal is to establish a
business empire, and the fact that they don't quite pull it off has
nothing to do with the commercial viability of their business plan.

We meet Wall Street investors who don't inhale themselves but are
ready to pony up for what they see as an industry about to blossom,
much as the liquor industry was during the final days of Prohibition.
"Marijuana Gold Rush" also takes us to a factory outside London where
GW Pharmaceuticals makes $45 million a year manufacturing pain killers
like Sativex, created legally from marijuana plant extracts. It's all
entirely above board, and the product has been proved to work and is
manufactured for one purpose only, and that is to reduce pain. The
intoxicating potential of the pot extracts have been all but nullified.

Sativex, a cannabinoid oral spray, could not be manufactured legally
in the United States today.

Even if the feds weren't cracking down right now, it's not easy being
legally green in the United States, we learn from Shaffer's film. Like
any other business, there are taxes, workers' comp, payroll taxes,
insurance and all kinds of other things the illegal pot trade doesn't
have to deal with. In other words, despite the financial benefits to
be reaped by legalization, even leaving aside the federal-state
imbroglio, states haven't made it easy for pot growers to thrive.

California focus

Both films focus on California because it was the first state to
legalize medicinal marijuana sales and the industry is both larger and
more sophisticated than it may be elsewhere in the nation. But in
addition to the states that have already adopted some kind of medical
marijuana legislation, the rest of the country is already at some
level of discussion about the issue. The one thing that's clear from
both films airing this week is that there isn't going to be either an
easy or a quick resolution to the problem.
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