From the early moments of the groundbreaking reality TV show, "Weed Wars," it's clear that longtime pot reform activist Steve DeAngelo is ready for his close-up. After a snappy title track by Snoop Dogg, the opening episode quickly cuts to scenes of a pony-tailed DeAngelo cruising the streets of Oakland and extolling the virtues of medical marijuana.
"I have a very close, personal relationship with the cannabis plant," says the loquacious founder of Harborside Health Center, the state's largest medical marijuana dispensary. "It was love at first sight."
Cable television in recent years has introduced millions to offbeat professions, from crab fishermen and ice road truckers, to pawnshop operators and bounty hunters. But are Americans ready to invite licensed pot peddlers into their living rooms?
Programmers at Discovery Channel hope so. They're taking a risk with "Weed Wars," a show that could have a polarizing effect on viewers. When an Entertainment Weekly online reporter broke news of the series in July, it was met with a deluge of comments, many of them negative. Cable news is also jumping into the fray, as DeAngelo and his brother, Andrew, general manager of Harborside, were grilled by Bill O'Reilly on his Fox News show Monday and were part of a Current TV news special about the California medical marijuana industry.
Nancy Daniels, executive vice president of production and development for Discovery, acknowledges that "Weed
Wars" pushes the envelope for prime-time TV, but ?says the network is excited to be presenting a series about a family-run business "at the forefront of a movement.
"It's an intriguing peek behind the curtain of something that you don't see on every corner of America," she said. "Yes, it's a controversial issue, but we hope viewers will be curious and will want to go along for the ride."
Shot over a six-month period, "Weed Wars" chronicles the daily dealings of the DeAngelos and fellow employees who run a state-of-the-art facility near Jack London Square and its branch in San Jose, where member-patients can purchase their "medicine" to inhale or eat in an array of flavors, including Blueberry Skunk and Hawaiian Goo.
While Harborside may be enjoying a Hollywood breakthrough -- its lobby is being expanded to accommodate the additional clientele the DeAngelos hope the show will bring -- "Weed Wars" debuts at an anxious time for the medical marijuana business.
Although California voters gave their blessing to medical marijuana in 1996, it remains illegal under federal laws, and in recent weeks, a federal crackdown on growers and sellers has intensified. Meanwhile, the Internal Revenue Service has ordered Harborside to pay $2 million in taxes after ruling that it cannot deduct standard business expenses such as payroll and rent. It's an assessment that threatens to put him out of business, Steve DeAngelo says.
"We're living in a very different political reality than we were when we agreed to do the show," he said during an interview at Harborside. "I'm deeply concerned about it."
That's why DeAngelo, a media-savvy entrepreneur given to proselytizing, regards "Weed Wars" as so much more than a potent piece of prime-time entertainment. He hopes it will not only pump additional business into Harborside but also have a substantial impact on the medical cannabis debate.
"For a long time, many Americans have looked at the world of cannabis from the outside. When you do that, it's easy to draw misconceptions," he said. "I've seen what this medicine does for suffering patients. I'm confident if the American people get to know my staff and my patients, they'll support our cause."
Of course, the success of any reality show largely hinges on how much star power its "cast" can generate. After all, the guys at the center of Discovery's "MythBusters" and "American Choppers" have their own Bobblehead dolls. So it's tempting to wonder what viewers in the heartland will think when they see DeAngelo, with his long braids, taking bong rips or fellow Harborside co-founder David Weddingdress wearing women's frocks to work.
"I'm not worried that people will see us as a bunch of kooks from California," DeAngelo said with a laugh. "We're kind of colorful, interesting characters. I hope America falls in love with us."
"We have our eccentricities," added Andrew DeAngelo, who once dreamed of being a stage actor. "But basically, we're like a normal family. We say grace at dinners. We mourn people we've lost and celebrate babies."
Chuck Braverman, the Southern California-based executive producer of "Weed Wars," is convinced the DeAngelos are TV stars in the making.
Last fall, he was making the rounds in Northern California for preliminary work on what he then thought would be a documentary featuring several marijuana collectives. But upon meeting Steve DeAngelo at Harborside, he was so taken by his passion and charisma that he ditched the other pot shops to narrow his focus.
"I thought, 'This is the guy. This is our show,'" Braverman recalled.
Braverman estimates that his company shot about 700 hours of footage at the two Harborside facilities. They also focused on marijuana growers, as well as some Harborside staffers and a few patients. If anyone was apprehensive about being filmed, they were given green Day-Glo stickers to wear so the camera crews knew to avoid them.
"We're still living in a society where a lot of people are uptight," Braverman said. "Some people don't want their employers, their friends or children to see them there for whatever reason."
Braverman, who says he "can count on one hand" how many times he has smoked pot in the past 25 years, says producing "Weed Wars" was an illuminating experience.
"I'm very cynical, and going in, I had a built-in prejudice (against medical marijuana) that a lot of middle-aged or older people might have," he said. "But I came away thinking that there is some legitimacy here. It changed my mind."