Saturday, November 26, 2011

Weed Wars

The cannabis battle: coming soon to your living room
Caitlin Donohue

"I always knew that doing this show would be a risk," says Harborside Health Center founder Steve DeAngelo in a phone interview with the Guardian. A medical marijuana dispensary could probably always be considered controversial fodder for a nighttime reality TV program, but DeAngelo's enterprise rose above standard controversy when it became the target of the IRS, the federal agency ruling that it could no longer write off common business expenses. It now owes $2 million — an amount that left the rest of the industry quaking with concerns over its future.

The perfect time for an on-air debut, right? DeAngelo thinks so.

"If the American people see how we use this medicine, how we distribute it, they're going to support it," he says. "They've only gotten a chance to see the government's side, the propaganda side."

Especially nowadays. In the past few weeks, the feds have launched a multi-lateral attack on medical cannabis dispensaries. The Treasury Department convinced banks to close dispensaries' accounts. The Department of Justice has sent out numerous cease-and-desist letters to dispensaries. The notifications insist that the trafficking illegal substances is occurring, and that it must be stopped — a turnaround from the Obama administration's earlier pledge that it would not stand in the way of a patient's access to medicine.

DeAngelo claims that Harborside is among the top 10 highest tax payers to the city of Oakland. The dispensary has gone through disputes over taxes paid before, but this latest persecution has meant a diminished sense of security for the dispensary's 120-person staff at its San Jose and Oakland locations — not to mention among patients.

"They're terrorized," says DeAngelo. "I have 60, 70, 80-year old patients who are terrified."

It's high drama stuff. Ironically, filming for Weed Wars — save a few remaining pickup shots — had already concluded by the time of the ruling. Surely Discovery Channel executives are smacking their foreheads, having shot the relatively boring chunk of 2011 at Harborside.

"It does seem like the cameras got turned off at just the wrong time," says DeAngelo.

The dispensary founder says that his people thoroughly vetted Braverman Productions prior to signing any deals — it wasn't the only offer they got to be the subject of such a show. He's confident the company will shy from the "unreal setups" so prevalent on other reality TV series. And he hopes that despite the current drama (which might make its way into the final episode of the program's season), producers will portray the dispensary in a way that's respectful and shows an accurate image of what day-to-day operations look like.

But whether or not that will be the case remains to be seen. An article written by a staff member in the September 2011 edition of the Harborside newsletter questioned the use of "weed" in the show's title (a faux pas in the medical marijuana industry). In such a volatile political environment, the temptation to sensationalize cannabis dispensaries might run pretty hot. Or on the contrary, maybe Weed Wars will make the sale of state-legal marijuana seem as normal as being a Coloradan bounty hunter or a Kardashian.

Regardless of what happens, DeAngelo's not ruing the day he decided to go into medical marijuana.

"We decided when we opened our doors that it was worth the risk. I still think it was worth that risk."

Weed Wars premieres November 27 at 10 p.m. PST on the Discovery Channel

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