The television show that is hoping to put medical marijuana and the marijuana industry as a whole in the lime light starts tonight. The Discovery Channel aires a 4 part series about life in and around the biggest medical marijuana dispensary in the world at 10 PM tonight. Harborside Health Center in Oakland California currently services 95,000 patients but is facing millions in back taxes and could be shut down due to this new show.
With California's $1.5 billion medical marijuana industry under siege since a federal crackdown began earlier this year, some in the business feel that a pinch of good publicity might chill out the feds.
Might even make those who use, sell and grow medical cannabis appear more human to the folks who live in the 34 states where such medicine isn't legal.
The message they hope to send, said Steve DeAngelo, head of California's largest dispensary: "U.S. attorneys are attacking people who are legitimately providing medicine to seriously ill and suffering people."
Tonight, DeAngelo's Harborside Health Center in Oakland will be featured in an unlikely, and some say risky, venue to make such a bold political statement: a reality television show. That same genre has blessed humankind with the Kardashians, the Gosselins and more hoarders than anyone thought existed.
But Discovery Channel officials promise something a bit less trivial when the four-part "Weed Wars" debuts at 10 p.m.
The show's producers spent a year at Harborside and were there when the dispensary was on the blunt end of the federal crackdown. In September, the Internal Revenue Service said Harborside, which has 95,000 patients and $21 million in annual revenue, owed $2.5 million in taxes for 2007 and 2008. Elsewhere across California, federal officials have threatened property owners with forfeiture and criminal charges for letting pot dispensaries rent office space from them.
That's the real-life drama in the show: If the IRS prevails, Harborside may close.
"My hope is that this is going to change the dynamics of the debate on the medical cannabis issue," said DeAngelo, Harborside executive director and co-founder.
With his long braids, ever-present porkpie hat and glib personality, DeAngelo is a reality show producer's dream central character. Minutes into tonight's opening episode, DeAngelo says he has long had "a very close personal relationship with the cannabis plant."
"I have always believed that if the American people could see what we were doing that they would support us," he told The Chronicle.
"Weed Wars" is already reaching new audiences. This week DeAngelo sparred with Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly and he has sat down for an interview with the women's magazine Redbook.
Still, some supporters are wary of the "creative editing" in reality shows.
"Reality shows do make me nervous in general. They have to sell advertising," said Richard Lee, president of Oaksterdam University, the Oakland cannabis industry training school.
The trade-off, Lee said, is that the more that marijuana is discussed openly, "it becomes part of the culture and achieves one more level of acceptance."
Over the past two years, DeAngelo has fielded 10 offers from reality producers. But he felt each wanted to focus on the more sensationalistic aspects of the business: Wads of cash trading hands. Green buds. People ingesting marijuana.
"I was worried that they wouldn't show the serious side of what we do" he said, namely providing relief to the sick.
Nancy Daniels, Discovery's executive vice president of production and development, said the show's creators approached the project more as documentarians and less as reality show producers.
They don't pull punches. Federal prosecutors believe the state's 1996 medical marijuana law has become a cover for an increasing number of illegal, large-scale growers and dispensaries to develop for-profit operations that go beyond the original intent of the state law, which was to provide relief to the sick and frail.
"There are people who go in there with clear and present needs for needing medicine, and there are also people with less clear needs," said Daniels, who has been involved in such reality fare as "Sarah Palin's Alaska," "Survivor" and the polygamy hootenanny, "Sister Wives."
"And that's probably the core issue: Should this be legal or not?" she said.
DeAngelo was not pleased with a couple of scenes in "Weed Wars." Like the one where a couple of his employees, who are all licensed medical marijuana patients, "had overmedicated."
"And they hadn't given our patients the kind of service that I expect them to give. That was very difficult for me to watch," DeAngelo said.
The timing of the show, DeAngelo admitted, is "both perfect and terrible at the same time."
When Harborside agreed to do the show more than a year ago, the Department of Justice had maintained a fairly hands-off policy toward California's medical cannabis industry. But that changed after IRS workers showed up on Harborside's doorstep in September, after "Weed Wars" had completed filming. They soon returned.
The IRS said Harborside could no longer deduct business expenses such as rent or payroll because it is involved in what the federal government views as illegal drug trafficking. Shortly before Christmas - about when the final episode of "Weed Wars" is scheduled to be broadcast - the dispensary is scheduled to file a petition in federal court protesting the $2.5 million tax bill.
"Now that we agreed to the show, it's too late to pull the plug on it," DeAngelo said. "Perhaps, in showing this show, it is going to result in the federal government raiding us and prosecuting us and locking us up. And that's a pretty scary prospect."