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'Weed Wars' is nothing to blow smoke at

'Weed Wars' on Discovery Channel, about the medical cannabis industry, is part of reality TV's growing interest in shows revolving around illicit substances.

December 21, 2011|By Matt Diehl, Special to the Los Angeles Times

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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