“Are you high right now?”
That’s a question some out-of-state colleagues were probably asking Greg Moore, editor-in-chief of the Denver Post, when he created the position of marijuana editor.
It certainly sparked the interest of Colorado filmmaker Mitch Dickman (director of Hanna Ranch). His new documentary Rolling Papers captures the first year of Colorado’s bold experiment in legalization, as seen through the work of Ricardo Baca, the new editor assigned to the paper’s pot post.
Rolling Papers follows Baca for a year. Early scenes show him on national TV talk shows, half-joking that he’s looking to hire marijuana critics. Whoopi Goldberg signs up, penning an early contribution to the Post’s marijuana web site, The Cannabist.
Soon enough the honeymoon ends, and the day-to-day job of journalism takes over. The first deep story investigates complaints about the concentration of THC in a certain brand of edibles. In one instance a chocolate bar labeled as having 100 mg of THC turned out to have only 0.3 mg. State regulators were apparently only concerned about doses stronger than claimed on the label. Nobody seemed to know whether it was a crime to include 200 times less THC than advertised.
If you think about it, it’s a bigger issue than disappointed and sober potheads. If a newcomer were to adjust their intake after a misleadingly low-dose edible, they might overdo it the next time and require medical help. This was a bug in the system, and Baca and the Post were there to cover it.
Two marijuana critics come and go (including one who, controversially, also writes a parenting column) before Ry Prichard seizes the screen. Prichard is an energetic “marijuana nerd” who makes a living as a photographer for the marijuana industry.
Other stories focus on public gatherings such as the Cannabis Cup and, of course, 4/20. (“Let’s not forget about Easter,” says one newsroom contributor, obviously not blown away by legalization.)
A summertime story featured parents moving to Colorado to get cannabis oil for children with leukemia or untreatable seizures. Some parents offer anecdotal evidence that it helps; others say it can’t be any worse for children than the opioids they’d otherwise be getting. Once again, neither the film nor the reporter has a definitive conclusion. They report, history will decide.
Rolling Papers ’ editing team of Zack Armstrong, Tim Kaminski, and Oscar-winner Davis Coombe deserve praise for tying these disparate pieces together with logical transitions, and for condensing some of the potentially dry material into zippy montages.
For example, toward the end of the year, Uruguay decriminalizes marijuana. Theirs was a top-down government decree rather than a grassroots upswell like ours. Baca travels there to write several stories, and to try to get an interview with their president. (I’ll let you watch the movie yourself to find out what happened.) I might have been willing to dive deep into the politics, but the editors wisely spared me the trouble by showing an entertaining highlight-reel version instead.
When it’s all said and done, Rolling Papers has shown a year’s worth of experience in only 79 minutes. Obviously, not everything fit into the film. Notable absences are interviews with law enforcement personnel, the perspective of marijuana opponents, and the myriad complications from state laws directly contradicting federal laws.
For me, it was a little disappointing that the film didn’t pick a side and offer a strong conclusion. But a lot of people from a lot of other places will be curious to see how our experiment is going. For them, it’s probably best that Rolling Papers doesn’t draw too many conclusions, but instead offers insight and experience, without judgment, like a good piece of reporting.