MOVIES

Stoned and goofy ... 'Rolling Papers' shows it's all in a day's work covering the marijuana industry

Toke.

"I'm definitely feeling a little stoned."

Exhale. Toke.

"I'm feeling a little goofy."

Toke.

"As far as dream jobs go…"

Such is the happy life of Brittany Driver, pot columnist for the Denver Post. She riffs on taste and aroma, is intimate with THC potency, and would never confuse the Ghost Train Haze blend with Tahoe Original Gangster. She is one of a chilled yet intense cast of characters in "Rolling Papers," a documentary about how the Post covered the fallout, bliss, chicanery and commercialization that emerged in 2014 when recreational marijuana could be sold legally in licensed shops.

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The film, which opens Feb. 19, is not quite "All the President's Men" meets "Sicario." But it is an amusing tale of a newspaper dispatching reporters, critics and editors to cover a seminal moment in a nation whose attitudes on marijuana have shifted from the scary days of "Reefer Madness" to the sublime hilarity of Cheech & Chong's "Up in Smoke" to a widening acceptance that weed deserves a place on the store shelf.

Our guide through the tangy haze is Ricardo Baca, a hushed-voiced scribe with an inquisitive streak and the disarming nature of a "pretty mild-mannered dude." A former music critic, Baca was chosen by Post editor Gregory L. Moore to be the paper's new pot editor and preside over the Cannabist Web page. The job drew quick national attention, notably from Stephen Colbert, who with mock alarm noted: "A pot editor is just a gateway job to a meth editor."

But Baca is serious in pursuing the customs and fascinations of what had long been an underground culture while also asking deeper questions about licensing, medicinal purposes, fraudulent dealers, the long-term effects of smoking, THC levels and the regulation of marijuana edibles. His staff glides on subtle ponderings and investigative doggedness in parsing a phenomenon that has progressives cheering and conservatives lamenting what they see as the country's perilous permissiveness.

"One of the greatest gifts you can be given as a journalist is starting from scratch," Baca said. "I'm proud of the work we've done.... I just love the conversation about normalization and how our culture looks differently at this new, legal plant."

The fun of "Rolling Papers" is following Baca and his team. One critic new to the newspaper business mentions while driving to an interview: "I should Google investigative reporting." Another reporter with a Spock-like demeanor seems out of sorts around stoners. And Driver, ever the stream of consciousness, worries that Child Protective Services may question her parenting choices: "They don't want you smoking weed, pretty much. They're still not on the trip that it's legal."

That dilemma contains both humor and anxiety regarding healthcare, civil rights and other issues arising around a substance the federal government still lists as an illegal drug. Such concerns are likely to multiply if California, Nevada and other states legalize recreational pot; the question will get to voters in Nevada this year and has been proposed for the California ballot in November. California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana, but initiatives for recreational use have failed.

"If California goes recreational it throws an atom bomb into marijuana normalization," Baca said, noting the commercial effect it would have on the state's large economy. "It will change everything." He added that he and his writers are tracking the commercialization of pot in Colorado.

"It's inevitable. This is America," he said. "We are beginning to see the rise of these massive chains."

The legal marijuana industry in the U.S. was $5.4 billion last year and is expected to grow to $6.7 billion this year, according to ArcView Market Research, which monitors the cannabis business. Much of the growth is propelled by medicinal marijuana sales. But in coming years the industry is likely to further expand as more states are expected to join Colorado, Alaska, Oregon and Washington in legalizing recreational use.

"While support for cannabis law reform has risen across all age groups, it is highest among adults ages 18-34, 74% of whom now support legalization of adult use," states ArcView's new report "The State of Legal Marijuana Markets," co-produced with New Frontier, an analytics firm. "This broad base of support among younger voters portends a generational shift in views that will fundamentally reshape the country's approach to cannabis regulation."

Such societal shifts present challenges to newspapers, including the Post, to develop Web pages and tell stories central to changing times and controversial narratives. The film offers a cursory view of the struggling newspaper business and suggests publications have to be more nimble and imaginative in what they cover, such as a story in the Cannabist with the headline "Smoker Supply Kit: The Necessary, Stylish Accessories for a High Night Out."

"We knew we had a situation that was unprecedented happening in Colorado," said director Mitch Dickman. "We wanted to see it through that lens. I didn't realize how rich the culture of it was. I didn't know about the Cannabis Cup."

Sponsored by High Times magazine, the Cannabis Cup is a sprawling marijuana trade show — the Olympics, if you will — of ganja: How it's manufactured, marketed and celebrated with T-shirts like, "Bong Hits 4 Jesus." Baca's team covered the event, and later in the film Driver, who writes a pot and parenting column, interviewed a family that was treating a boy's leukemia with the marijuana compound known as Cannabidiol or CBD.

Baca then traveled to Uruguay, the first country to legalize marijuana. He poked around for a while with the curiosity of Hunter S. Thompson, sans guns, wild gestures and vicious streams of prose. He ate doped-up sweets, interviewed the president's wife, sampled the local product, pondered leftist politics and flew home.

Colorado was legalized but restive. At a forum sponsored by the Post, doctors, parents, marijuana manufacturers and others spoke for and against hemp, its economic potential, regulation and what it might do to children. When asked about the effects of occasional marijuana use, a doctor noted, "This is an issue we don't know a lot about."

Tipping appears to be one of the drug's many uses. Baca said that people are tipping Uber drivers, bed-and-breakfast staffs and others with pot. It fits well, he said, into a shared economy. It also conjures vivid, off-kilter imagery, such as when a pot seller told critic Jake Browne that a particular blend was so good, "I got melted to the couch," which was cool because he was ready to stream "House of Cards."

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on February 14, 2016, in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Good thing they went to J-school - `Rolling Papers' shows how reporting on the marijuana industry is all in a day's work for these journalists." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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