Hollywood Marijuana Portrayal Not Helping Cannabis Movement

Marijuana is a serious professional business that, unlike alcohol, has genuine medical applications to it as well. Movies, t.v. shows and online shows are all very influential on the American public and the marijuana portrayal is missing the proper mark by quite a bit.

There are cancer patients using medical marijuana to help ease chemotherapy side-effects, there are people that suffer from chronic pain on a regular basis that find relief with medical marijuana, and there are legitimate businesses that are dealing with the trials and tribulations of running a company. If marijuana portrayal in Hollywood is going to continue down the path of couch potato stoners and incompetent workers, then it is not paying attention.

As America slowly crawls out from under the devastating weight of a failed War on Drugs, much of the entertainment industry still treats legal marijuana as a low-hanging punchline or forgettable, if buzz-worthy backdrop — as opposed to the most significant drug policy shift of our lifetimes.

And I get it. I’ve worked in the regulated cannabis industry since 2009, and I see these compelling stories and the inherent humor on a daily basis. I agree that Hollywood should be telling these stories, and as one of the primary subjects of the MSNBC docuseries Pot Barons, I even have firsthand experience in this still-new confluence of the entertainment and cannabis industries.

But as Hollywood tells these stories, writers and directors should also be more responsible in their depiction of this thoroughly modern entity known as the legal, regulated cannabis business. Most Americans have never experienced this industry firsthand, and so seeing these inaccurate televised depictions only enforces the negative stereotypes that we’ve already moved beyond in post-prohibition markets.

And just as expert consultants play pivotal roles in the writing rooms of medical dramas and crime serials, we’re entering an era where some of these same productions will require authorities from the legal marijuana space to ensure they’re getting it right and not embarrassing themselves — or the responsible entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry.

I first found myself thinking about this a few weeks ago when my fiancé and I sat down for the premiere of Ballers’ third season on HBO. I was thrilled as they teased character Vernon Littlefield’s potential involvement in the cannabis industry; With former Oakland Raider Donovan Carter playing Littlefield, I hoped they might discuss cannabis as a treatment for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy and a replacement for the far more harmful opioids typically prescribed by NFL doctors.

But then (spoiler alert), Ballers started taking some dangerous and misleading creative liberties with the cannabis storyline. In the season premiere, Littlefield ends up wearing a marijuana brand’s hoodie in a lucrative endorsement deal — and he later gives the hoodie to a fan, who inappropriately is a very young teenager. A few weeks later in the season’s third episode, Littlefield’s friend and agent tour the endorsed brand’s marijuana grow, eating and pocketing “free samples” of fresh-from-the-oven infused edibles, with their host’s permission — something the legal, regulated marijuana industry would never tolerate.

Right as we were watching these episodes, Netflix was debuting its new original sitcom Disjointed — a dispensary-set tour de force from hit-maker Chuck Lorre, powerhouse Warner Bros. TV and actress Kathy Bates. I was excited to see such a team come together in the name of a marijuana sitcom, but again, the show’s misrepresentations of the modern cannabis industry prevented me from being able to suspend my disbelief.

In the first few episodes, a middle-aged female patient visits the dispensary run by Ruth (Bates) seeking relief, a familiar scene to my colleagues and I, who see this happen daily. But then the customer consumes the marijuana at the shop, hanging out in the dispensary for hours until Ruth eventually gives her a bottle of cannabis-infused massage oil, “on the house.”

As the dispensary’s employees take smoke breaks inside the grow and on the shop roof, a group of patients rally for a parking-lot smoke-out to protest a neighboring business’ complaint of customers lighting up in front of the dispensary and other nearby businesses.

And while Bates’ character was against the smoke-out, everything I mentioned from these popular TV shows is a far cry from legal marijuana’s current reality. Celebrity investors aren’t handing out merch to children who are too young to consume, as that would be wildly irresponsible. And free samples don’t exist in grows, kitchens and retail outlets where everything is closely monitored by seed-to-sale technology and ever-curious state regulators.

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