‘Rolling Papers’ Movie Review: A Self-Aware Depiction Of Weed Journalism
Rolling Papers is a documentary following the first weed-oriented journalistic project, “The Cannabist” feature in The Denver Post, over the course of the first year of the legalization of medical marijuana in Colorado. The documentary offers a objective view of the situation, with both the motivations and procedural strategies of Ricardo Baca, the editor of the project, and the Denver Post editor-in-chief Gregory Moore, as well as the varying perspectives and specialties of Baca’s staff writers laid out in a way that’s not critical but not quite favorable and entirely honest. Rolling Papers also speaks to the regulatory ambiguities in the legalization of marijuana, with many questions on the topics of childcare, medication and manufacturing still left unanswered. The social commentary of the film is faint and subtextual, seemingly leaving the viewer to decide their view on this cultural movement.
‘Rolling Papers’ Movie Review
The film opens on Jan. 1 2014, the day marijuana was recreationally legalized in the state of Colorado, the first state to do so in the United States, with a shot of people lining up around the block to purchase the drug.
The documentary frames Moore’s intentions as “smart journalism.” What was happening in Colorado was something that had never happened before, at least in the modern world, and people were clearly interested in it. With the oldest newspaper and business in the state, Rocky Mountain News, putting out their own obituary, this column is a smart survival tactic, the first move towards a new model of journalism. The revenue of marijuana in after legalization in Colorado exceeded expectations, and so did the performance of The Cannabist. Despite being nicknamed “The Denver Pot,” this gamble made The Denver Post more popular than ever.
For the column, Baca hired two pot critics, Brittany and Drake, and later, Ry Prichards, the “biggest weed nerd in town.” Baca explains that he wants to write weed profiles that are better than your “average great wine review.”
Drake is described as a “bud”-tender who has been in the industry for years. The documentary produces an old homemade clip of Drake smelling and describing different strains of weed and then follows him to a dispensary, which looks strangely like a tea or herb store in gentrified San Francisco or Brooklyn. Dozens of glass jars of cannabis are held in a glass display counter, and the customer can ask one of the weed connoisseurs for the background of them and sniff them before purchasing. When he goes to test the weed at home, not unlike how one takes only one or two sips of wine in a wine tasting, him and his friend take one hit before they begin smacking their lips and describing the flavor. He calls a particular strain “chatty” and “racy.” While depicting the seriousness and professionalism of this endeavor, this also hints at the pretension and exclusivity either already involved or leaking into this culture.
Brittany is a much more controversial staff writer. Even though she describes her weed critic job as “the coolest thing that will ever happen in [her] life,” the thing that catches the public (and Baca’s collegue’s) critical eye is her pot and parenting column. Brittany is the first to bring up a major problem of the documentary, that even though weed is legal is Colorado, it is not federally legalized, so the problem of weed and parenting, in the eyes of Child Protective Services, a federal organization, is unclear. Another time the issue of state legalization comes up is when Whoopi Goldberg expresses interest of writing a biweekly column for the cite, even penning an article, “My Vape Pen and I: A Love Story.” But a few weeks later one of Goldberg’s representatives says that she never agreed to write for him. Yet when New York medically legalized marijuana, Goldberg is back on board.
Even within the state of Colorado, there are a lot of law-related issues that need to be dealt with. The first big story that is covered is about Dr. J’s Hash which many dispensaries complain doesn’t seem to have any THC. Baca’s team, after running some tests, finds that the claims are true, and when approaching Tom, the owner of Dr. J’s, he denies the validity of tests and tells Baca that he is ruining his business. Baca’s team uncovers that although there is a law that producers can’t put more THC than labeled, there is no law stating that producers can’t put less. Another regulatory issue that Baca’s team explores is the problem of labeling serving size on weed products, in response to a college student jumping off a building after taking six times recommended dosage.
Going back to the weed critics, Prichards, really depicts the creation of jobs involved in the legalization of weed. With the legalization of weed, he is able to run his photography business in a more legitimate way, getting a more consistent flow of income. “I have a baby to feed,” he says, “She can’t eat weed.” It is Prichards that is constantly asked in the documentary’s trailer if he’s high while he’s working. By the last episode, as he has a more steady job and stable life, he says he’s not.
The documentary races over expansive topics and events, a trip to Uruguay to explore legalization of weed there, weed-related events in the US such as the Cannabis cup (“Olympics for the Stoner Community”) and 4/20, the existing drug dealers who still make money selling weed outside of pot dispensaries, a mother who has been successfully treating her leukemic son with marijuana after he stopped responding to chemo (who doesn’t get high off of the weed because of the damage that medically prescribed opiates have already done to his body). Because of everything that the documentary runs through in less than 1.5 hours, the documentary can feel a bit disjointed, but as it does keep the film from ever getting boring. At the end of the movie the audience is ultimately left with the general idea that what is happening in Colorado is something new and there are still many unanswered questions. But the undeniable point is that this is not a fad that is going to fade away anytime soon. It’s a cultural movement. There are families flocking to Colorado from across the country because they think that marijuana could cure cancer, could stop seizures, could save their children. More and more states are legalizing marijuana yet studies of its overall effects are inconclusive, more success stories than failures are shared, and panels of so-called experts of marijuana are vague and uninformative. The movie ends one year later with the firm conclusion that the sky hasn’t fallen, the legalization of weed in Colorado has not meant the downfall of America, leaving what it does mean for America open-ended.
As I touched upon before, while the documentary depicts the journalistic pot team investigating in a wholesome, professional way, there a hint of satire that leaks into the footage. Every time a type of cannabis is mentioned, whether it be a specific strain or edible or other type of marijuana, a the form of weed is presented on a light purple fuzzy revolving platform, cheesy commercial music playing that emits a exaggerated idea of status. On the topic of music in the documentary, scenes in the movie are often presented with club or party music, showing the exaggerated hype of the drug, leaving viewers wondering if this is a critique for weed-haters or weed-lovers. Also, director Mitch Dickman is unafraid of splicing in unfavorable footage of Baca and his staff, between the sympathetic content that most of the film holds. So underneath the narrative of the candid and excited main characters–who obviously believe in not only the inevitability, but also the great possibility that the cultural movement of weed legalization holds–is the impressive work of Dickman and his team to sculpt a story which shows the logical shifts that American culture is facing, fueled by America’s so-far harmless but almost hilarious obsession with weed.
Maybe this idea is depicted best within the first three minutes of a film when a clip is shown of a Japanese reporter asking two girls on the street what they think about marijuana. “What’s marijuana?” the subtitles read in response.
Exploring many of the important issues still surrounding weed while presenting a commendable attempt of providing an objective view of the effects of weed legalization in Colorado, Rolling Papers is informative as well as entertaining, and well worth the time of those both those who are pot-lovers and those who aren’t.