Movie Review: Rolling Papers: a portrait of Marijuana Legalization

First, I’d like to mention that I’m grateful to be able to view this film on demand, in my own home. And if you think I had a few tokes while I watched this, you’d be correct.

Judging from the trailer, I assumed Rolling Papers would be a summary of Colorado’s marijuana from well-covered angles, without delving too deeply.

I was partially correct. This film is great for someone who knows little about Colorado’s legal marijuana scene and wants a top-sheet of the status quo. It doesn’t contain any lengthy insight on federal legalization or the intricacies of marijuana-based businesses. Those topics could be films on their own. The creators went for broad appeal, as marijuana culture still resides within counter-culture and is mysterious to the masses. In that way, this film serves as the first snapshot for future documentaries about marijuana reform in America¹.

The documentary is shown through the eyes of The Denver Post. Editor Gregory Moore sees the value in covering Colorado’s cannabis revolution, but is still surprised that one of his very meticulous reporters is a cannabis enthusiast. “I don’t even think he really drinks,” Moore comments, as if marijuana users imbibe by default. He ended up choosing Ricardo Baca as his marijuana editor, partially because he covered Denver’s music scene for years and, reasoned Moore, is “familiar with marijuana.” We now know that Baca has done an incredible job with The Cannabist, so Moore’s instincts were sound despite his inaccurate  preconceptions of pot smokers.

Creator Mitch Dickman stays out of voice-overs for the most part, opting for trap beats and some motion graphics to give the film a personality. At times, I really wish it was limited to instrumental tracks. When removed, this would have made for a straight-laced documentary about Colorado’s cannabis culture, but it doesn’t harm the content. Instead, Dickman uses Ricardo Baca’s commentary as a refrain when needed. The flashy treatment each time a new marijuana strain is presented is fun, but ultimately serves no purpose in informing the viewer.

A fair amount of time is spent highlighting the demise of newspapers, but I think they’ve ultimately missed the point: journalism isn’t dying; printed paper is. Newspapers that have overhauled their operation to act more like nimble Silicon Valley startups and less like stodgy bureaucratic institutions have flourished. They see The Cannabist as a way to revive The Denver Post (which it has, in part) but if they want to truly evolve, they need stop allowing a specific medium define their whole organization.

One scene that receives an op-ed treatment is a city hall meeting. Citizens and community leaders bring up concerns about regulation, public health and child safety, but the filmmakers reduce it to more of a mob with pitchforks through heavy editing. Having commentary from experts would give the issues the legitimacy they deserve. Instead, the scene potentially alienates viewers and leaves them with the same questions they had before seeing the movie.

But when a colleague voices concern for a columnist writing as a marijuana enthusiast and a mother, Baca shows deference to  office politics. Prenatal exposure to cannabis is a serious health concern, and the offended staffer had experience covering Child Protective Services, witnessing firsthand the causes of infant mortality and child neglect. While her concerns are valid, I doubt that columns written from the point of view of a mother who drinks wine would be handled with the same kid gloves². This sequence illustrates that marijuana faces a bias that mainstreamed recreational substances have since lost, whether due to aggressive public awareness campaigns or the simple passage of time.

Uruguay receives a lot of attention in the film for their legalization of marijuana nationwide, mostly to show how their process was almost the opposite of the US’s legalization movement. The contrast was nice, but too much time was spent walking around Montevideo.

Much of the filming took place in 2014. The industry has progressed at lightning speed since then, but many of the issues are still relevant. What hasn’t progressed is the need for regulation, and Rolling Papers touches on this in a few different ways. It addresses regulation in manufacturing and labeling of products, but the aforementioned op-ed scene made clear that it was a subject too complex to unravel within the confines of this film.

Rolling Papers could have taken a harder look into common concerns viewers may have about legalizing marijuana, but the documentary covers a lot of ground and serves as great conversation-starter for the general public.




¹ I realize there are other documentaries on drug use, drug culture, the War on Drugs, marijuana and so on. This particular documentary goes for mass appeal unlike those that precede it.
² Seriously: Moms and their wine. A brief search through social media will confirm this is a well-covered phenomenon that receives far less criticism, not to mention that link I provided… Yikes.

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