'Weed Wars' is nothing to blow smoke at

"By selling the amount of cannabis that I've sold, I am now eligible for more than three federal death penalties." So says Steve DeAngelo, protagonist of the Discovery Channel miniseries "Weed Wars," at the beginning of each episode, immediately alerting viewers that this is not standard reality TV. As founder and executive director of Oakland-based Harborside Health Center — a medical-marijuana collective that DeAngelo claims is "the largest cannabis dispensary on the entire planet" — he won't be voted off the island or lose the singing competition in the final round. Instead, DeAngelo faces severe legal consequences for the activities documented in "Weed Wars," which airs its first season finale Thursday.

"Weed Wars" offers unprecedented access into the medicinal-cannabis universe, from entrepreneur-activists like DeAngelo to growers, sellers and patients, all operating on the edge of legality.

"It's the first real chance that [medical cannabis] providers have had to get their own story out there," notes Aaron Lachant, associate at Los Angeles-based Fenton Nelson, who runs the healthcare-focused law firm's medical-marijuana litigation practice. "Previously, the narrative around medical marijuana has always been dominated by state and federal government, city councils and the Drug Enforcement Administration. This show helps make it a national debate, and not just a California issue."

Though groundbreaking, "Weed Wars" may be just an opening salvo in what is shaping up to be a growing reality sub-genre devoted to illicit substances. The show has scored well with key demos, averaging just under a million viewers a week. Meanwhile, Discovery's Dec. 6 premiere of "Moonshiners" — a series focused on the exploits of illegal alcohol distillers in the Appalachian backwoods — earned the network close to 3 million viewers, its highest ratings for a series debut.

"The topic is in the zeitgeist right now," says Nancy Daniels, executive vice president of production and development for the Discovery Channel. "Both shows present an inherent level of drama and stakes that works for any show, with characters operating on the edge of the law that really pop on TV. We're not taking a side — we're just showing what's happening with a hot-button issue."

National Geographic Channel, meanwhile, is bringing back its investigative documentary series "Drugs Inc." for a second season, with new episodes set to broadcast Jan. 1. And later this spring, National Geographic will present new series "American Weed": where "Drugs Inc." exhaustively explores numerous aspects of the multi-billion-dollar illegal-drug trade throughout the world, "American Weed" focuses specifically on the marijuana-legalization movement of Colorado.

"The incredible disconnect between local authorities' approval and federal law is playing out with a lot of drama in many communities," says Michael Cascio, National Geographic Channel's executive vice president of production, "and we follow a group of people dealing with the new reality."

According to Shirley Halperin, co-author of "Pot Culture: The A-Z Guide to Stoner Language and Life," the wave of pot-based programming jump-started with the surprise success of CNBC's 2009 documentary special "Marijuana Inc.: Inside America's Pot Industry." "The ratings are there, advertisers are there," she says. "Weed's place in pop culture is at critical mass."

Indeed, "Weed Wars" executive producer Chuck Braverman (whose diverse résumé includes directing episodes of "Beverly Hills 90210" and Oscar-nominated documentaries) says it's taken a while for TV to catch up. "The irony is, two years ago, I had a marijuana-related project, and every network passed on it."

In September 2010, however, Discovery contacted him about developing a series on the topic focused on Northern California. Braverman says he cold-called Harborside's DeAngelo. "When I met him, I realized I'd immediately hit pay dirt. He's very bright, articulate and a little different looking, which is good for television."

DeAngelo's Pippi Longstocking braids and beatnik mufti certainly contrast with his CEO charisma, honed after years on the front lines of marijuana-legalization activism. The 53-year-old moved from Washington, D.C. to Oakland in 2000, where he helped found the medical-cannabis advocacy group Americans for Safe Access. DeAngelo started Harborside in 2006 to "create a different type of public image for medical cannabis. I wanted it to be a model of good care and legal compliance, so we always embraced the media, politicians and transparency."

According to DeAngelo, controversy surrounding the slim failure of 2010's Proposition 19 ballot initiative to legalize and regulate the sale of marijuana increased his media profile tremendously. "We were approached by several reality-show producers, all of whom had preset agendas," he explains. "We didn't want a distorted picture created by artificial setups and conflict. Discovery convinced us they wanted to do something more balanced."

That Braverman and Discovery were able to convince Harborside's staff and growers to appear on camera is surprising, considering the show's daunting legal situation.

"We have our own internal legal analysis to ensure we're being responsible," Daniels explains. "It's a calculated risk on [Harborside's] part, and ours."

DeAngelo admits he "doesn't expect Discovery to pay my legal bills" in the event of crackdowns resulting from national television exposure — a very possible outcome. Regardless of state laws governing medical marijuana, Lachant says Harborside's "going on TV and showing how they operate is de facto evidence of how they are violating the [federal] Controlled Substances Act every day. There's a history of the federal government going after individuals who put themselves in the spotlight. In Colorado, one gentleman went on the local news to explain how he was growing marijuana as part of the state's program. The DEA then showed up on his door with a warrant and guns drawn."

Despite its provocative subject matter and depictions of drug use, "Weed Wars" has inspired little outcry. A show like TLC's "All-American Muslim" recently spawned a boycott after the Lowe's retail chain pulled its ads off the show; conversely, the most contentious reaction to "Weed Wars" came when Andrew and Steven DeAngelo appeared on Fox News' "The O'Reilly Factor" on Nov. 30. "O'Reilly Factor" host Bill O'Reilly expectedly assailed the DeAngelo brothers, decrying medical cannabis as a "ruse" and "scam."

"Weed Wars" doesn't entirely avoid stoner archetypes and reality-show tropes. There's the requisite cast of colorful eccentrics, like Dave Wedding Dress, Harborside's co-owner, who wears only dresses in public. Braverman's cameras also capture characters in the midst of giggle-filled munchies. But much of the show highlights the science behind medical marijuana by showing Harborside's extensive lab tests or explaining the difference between THC (marijuana's primary psychoactive agent) and CBD (associated with much of its medical benefits).

"Just like 'American Chopper' or 'Deadliest Catch,' the inside processes of those worlds is something we know audiences will find interesting," Daniels says.

In one episode, a 5-year-old epileptic named Jayden receives medical marijuana after conventional treatments (like Valium injection) fail him. "Having a child try this is very controversial, but the drugs from good doctors weren't working," Braverman says. "His father said Jayden's life was 100% better after he tried medical cannabis; he even was able to swim in a pool for the first time."

It's unclear what influence shows like "Weed Wars" and the upcoming "American Weed" will have. "From my long experience, reality shows do not influence public policy," says Dale Gierenger, director of California NORML (The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws). "But they may influence public opinion. The industry has been trying to be more public, and the show is certainly doing that."

"I feel 100% exposed," DeAngelo admits. "We've taken a huge risk, but it was something I thought the American people deserved to see. Television is the arbiter of people's reality in society, which is why I saw doing the show as a hugely valuable act of public education. It has lived up to, and exceeded, my expectations."


'Weed Wars'

Where: Discovery

When: 10 p.m. Thursday

Rating: TV-14-L (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with an advisory for coarse language)

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