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As Legalization Day Nears, Marijuana Remains Ubiquitous in Hollywood

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Hollywood and marijuana have been bedfellows at least since the shocking 1948 arrest of bad boy actor Robert Mitchum for possession spurred tabloid headlines. Then came 1969’s “Easy Rider,” in which Dennis Hopper’s Billy turns the whiskey-drinking Jack Nicholson character onto a spliff and a world of wild-eyed meditation around the campfire. Cheech & Chong took the billowing cloud to the van, smoking a giant doobie in 1978’s “Up in Smoke.” Cut to the present day, when to hear inveterate stoner Seth Rogen on “The Howard Stern Show” offer an edible-inflicted nightmare experience of screening “Rogue One,” and you think, what else is new?

Yes, these days, if you don’t smell marijuana at an open-air Hollywood premiere or awards ceremony — certainly the Golden Globes — it’s because heads are now surreptitiously sucking on their smokeless vape pens. As one industry insider put it, “Pot is still ubiquitous in this town.” And that’s before legalization officially kicks in Jan. 1.

That was certainly the case at a recent concert by San Diego band Slightly Stoopid at Los Angeles’ Greek Theater, which started with the opening act declaring, “This song is about smoking weed in the summertime!”

It’s a little more than four months until marijuana will become, by law, available for “adult use” in California, but that doesn’t seem to make any difference to this blissful audience. “I feel that, at a Slightly Stoopid show, it’s already legal,” says Miles Doughty, one of the band’s two lead singers. He’s just come from performing at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado, where herb has been legal since 2012, generating an estimated $256 million in state revenue last year. “Even our forefathers saw it as a cash crop.”

Kathy Bates poses in front of Alternative Herbal Health Services, which inspired the dispensary in “Disjointed.”
Courtesy of Dan Steinberg/Netflix

As a sign of the times, the band’s just-completed Sounds of Summer Tour was sponsored by Ghost Vapes, which created a limited edition co-branded portable vaporizer for the group, although the L.A.-based company’s president Tara Kelly insists its revolutionary convection heating technology is strictly for “dried herbs, lavender, peppermint tea” and other legal uses. “For younger consumers, vaping is a trend, like juicing, a safe, no-risk alternative.” Doughty, of course, knows better. “We call it the Millennium Falcon of vapes,” he laughs. “It’s an incredible experience.”

Now that pot is about to become a taxable commodity like alcohol and tobacco, the previously mom-and-pop world of growers, medical dispensaries and product manufacturers face their own uncertain future.

“The sharks are circling the chum in the water,” says Chris Driessen, president of the Colorado-based Organa Brands U.S., a company that manufactures vape
pens, edibles, energy drinks and oil cartridges as well as owning their own extraction, refinement and distillation labs in 10 states. Big Pharm, Big Alcohol, Big Tobacco, Big Agriculture and Wall Street hedge funds are all swimming in the deep end, he says. “The money has always been there; it was just going into the wrong pockets before.”

Aaron Justis has been operating Buds & Roses, an upscale dispensary on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City since 2007 — one of the original 134 dispensaries with licenses to operate in the city of L.A. — and has been running the business under “limited immunity” since 2013, waiting for this day to come. But he cautions not to start partying on New Year’s because the variety of city and state licenses required will take months to sort out. Although weed will be decriminalized, it will be heavily regulated, on top of a 6% tax on gross revenue and inability to deduct expenses that barely allows B&R to break even.

“I’m doing everything I can to survive in this new marketplace, building a company that can be profitable, follows the rules, has a growth plan and can raise money from outside investors,” says Justis, who foresees delivery services, mail order and social gathering spots where people can openly smoke weed coming soon. Amoeba Records received a license to sell pot beginning in 2018. “Those who are passionate about it are in this for the long run, not just to cash out,” he says.

“As California goes, so goes the rest of the country and the world.”
Chris Driessen, Organa Brands U.S.

The stated goal, for entrepreneurs like Justis and Driessen, is the “mainstreaming of marijuana,” offering its product to both cancer patients who need it and soccer moms just looking to take the edge off. Part of that normalization can be seen in the new Netflix series “Disjointed,” a traditional four-cam workplace sitcom — complete with raucous (if obnoxious) live audience laughter — set in a marijuana dispensary run by ’60s activist Ruth Whitefeather Feldman, played by real-life weed advocate (and cancer survivor) Kathy Bates. Created by veteran producer Chuck Lorre (“Two and a Half Men,” “The Big Bang Theory”) and Emmy-winning “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” head writer/executive producer David Javerbaum, the juxtaposition of the antiquated form and ribald pot humor makes for a sometimes disorienting, surreal blend. Call it “Cheers” with weed instead of beer.

The show’s credited “cannabis consultant,” “Dr.” Dina Browner, is a nice Jewish girl from Tarzana who took her first hit from Snoop Dogg, meeting the rapper through her schoolmate’s father, attorney David Kenner — Snoop’s counsel on a successful defense and acquittal of murder charges in 1993. With partner Jason Beck, she is the proprietor of Alternative Herbal Health Services on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, whose customers include rappers 2 Chainz, The Game, Fabolous and Snoop, creating the Deez Nutz edible chocolate bar for him. To mark the premiere of “Disjointed,” the dispensary was transformed into Ruth’s Alternative Caring, offering various strains for sale based on individual Netflix series.

The 10-episode “Disjointed” — another 10 are shot and ready to air in the new year — careens between poignant and absurd, though it does a good job of spotlighting the conflict between Ruth’s old-school values of hemp as a sacrament and the desire of her African-American millennial son (and MBA grad) Travis (Aaron Moten) to turn the business into “the Walmart of weed.” The show’s finale — featuring a raid/shakedown by the DEA — puts the fed’s 50-plus-year war on drugs into stark perspective.

“We’re still figuring it out,” says Dr. Dina about what will happen come Jan. 1. “I have hopes and concerns. I care about our low-income medical patients getting what they need for fair prices. I’m a compassionate caregiver, but the taxes won’t allow me to give product away as we have in the past. I’m afraid this is the start of the real gold rush.”

Or green rush, as it were. “I came out of the cannabis subculture,” explains Buds & Roses’ Justis, a Rockford, Ill., native who began as a Cannabis Cup-winning grower before becoming a retailer. “I want a store people feel comfortable in, for mainstream people that use cannabis in their everyday life but aren’t necessarily immersed in the culture.”

Will the normalization of marijuana ruin its anti-establishment appeal, or is that just some idealistic relic left over from the boomer-centric 1960s? And while entrepreneurs like Ghost Vape’s Kelly and Organa’s Driessen stress the “health and wellness lifestyle” aspect of what they’re doing, what about those of us — like the crazed YouTube stoners Dank and Dabby (Chris Redd and Betsy Sodaro) on “Disjointed” — who just want to get high for the fun of it?

“My days of battling the man are over,” admits Slightly Stoopid’s Doughty. “As an individual, it’s hard to shut down the machine. So, this is a celebration, and it’s about time. I’m just glad people are waking up.”

“As California goes, so goes the rest of the country and the world,” offers Driessen. “This is the tipping point. It’s an immense responsibility for the policy-makers to do it safely, wisely and in a way that’s beneficial to the community.”

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