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Oakland Gets A Reality TV Close Up: "Weed Wars"

 
The Discovery Channel show zeroes in on marijuana dispensary, just before the law does

Orange County and Beverly Hills have “The Real Housewives.” The San Francisco Giants had “The Franchise” on Showtime last summer.

Now, Oakland is getting ready for a reality television close-up. Naturally, it is a show about marijuana.

The Discovery Channel will broadcast the first episode of “Weed Wars” on Thursday. The four-part series offers an inside look at the medical marijuana business at Harborside Health Center in Oakland, the largest dispensary on the West Coast. The show stars the colorful crew that runs the dispensary: Steve DeAngelo, the silver-pigtailed co-founder and executive director; Luigi Zamarra, the nervous accountant; and Dave Wedding Dress, the bearded, dress-wearing co-founder, among others.

The day-to-day routine, it turns out, is a mix of the achingly mundane and the risky. In one episode, as Terryn, a Harborside “bud tender,” frets about aphids killing his plants, DeAngelo stares into the camera lens and says, “At any moment federal agents could break through these doors and lock me up for the rest of my life.” In fact, the Justice Department announced a big crackdown on medical marijuana dispensaries across California soon after the series finished its scheduled shooting, though Harborside remains open.

“Weed Wars” is not the first marijuana reality show. It is not even the first featuring Oakland. That honor goes to “I’m in the Marijuana Business,” an episode of the MTV “True Life” series that was broadcast last summer. While “Weed Wars” is straightforward, “True Life” was more typical reality TV fare, with a cast of volatile individuals prone to fighting, crying and flashing money.

MTV followed a friendly 20-something named Chris who moved to Oakland to pursue his lifelong dream of growing marijuana. But “he’s been afraid to tell his family for fear they’ll disown him,” the announcer intones dramatically. It also features a Colorado hippie couple, Gemma and Pa, as they struggle to make marijuana bars in between stoner ruminations and screaming matches.

DeAngelo wanted to avoid this type of portrayal. He said that before the Discovery Channel offer, he turned down 10 other companies because “I could tell they had some sort of agenda.”

“We have been stereotyped as slackers, profiteers and criminals,” DeAngelo said. “With this show, they will see that we are decent people who are providing medicine for patients in a responsible way.”

The first episode of “Weed Wars” centers on a tax-bill fight between Harborside and Oakland’s Business Tax Board of Review (in what is undoubtedly the television debut for the solemn and obscure entity).

To cope with the stress of the ordeal, DeAngelo turns to his own form of relief. The camera cuts to a darkened room. “I don’t want to forget how to relax, and cannabis really helps me remember how to relax,” said DeAngelo as he lovingly inhaled.

At another point, DeAngelo, who has a medical marijuana card, rips into a marijuana-laced piece of gingerbread to calm his nerves as he drives across the Bay Bridge to a speaking engagement. It does not take effect for 45 minutes, he tells the camera in an effort to explain that he is not driving while high.

Although Discovery could not know it at the time, the dispensary’s skirmish with the tax board was a precursor to much more serious weed wars. Soon after the crew turned off its cameras, Harborside was hit with a $2.5 million bill from the Internal Revenue Service. The Department of Justice crackdown on California dispensaries came the following week.

In an interview this week, DeAngelo acknowledged that when he opened his doors to the cameras last year, the legal climate was decidedly sunnier. The Obama administration had indicated that it would not go after medical marijuana dispensaries.

“I wasn’t expecting to find us in the middle of a huge reversal of federal policy when we made this,” DeAngelo said.

Indeed, after the announcement from the United States attorneys, the Discovery crew returned to collect more video. When asked if it added more drama to the show, DeAngelo deadpanned, “Just a touch.”

Some people in the medical marijuana industry were alarmed by DeAngelo’s decision to open up his operation to the cameras.

“I think they’re absolutely nuts,” said William Panzer, a criminal lawyer who represents medical marijuana dispensaries in the Bay Area. “I think they risk getting shut down. They risk getting raided.”

The Discovery producers, however, seem careful with the dispensary’s image.

“With this show in particular, because there’s a lot on the line for Steve and his business, we wanted to make sure we were getting it right,” said Nancy Daniels, executive vice president of production and development at Discovery.

DeAngelo is hoping for the best. “There’s no question in my mind that the show will help the movement,” he said, though the dispensary still faces some harsh realities. “Whether or not it is going to protect Harborside from the wrath of the federal government, I don’t know.”

This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.

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