September 17, 2009
Los Angeles -- Tips for cultivating marijuana. Testimonials by patients about its medical benefits. Cannabis cooking lessons. Even citations for award-winning strains of pot. Viewers here can now watch, every week, what amounts to a pro-weed news program.
Booted off one skittish TV station but quickly picked up by another, the low-budget “Cannabis Planet” show is televised evidence of how entrenched marijuana has become in California’s cultural firmament and a potent example of the way the pot subculture has been edging into the national mainstream.
“We’re trying to show the legitimacy of this plant,” said Brad Lane, the executive producer of the half-hour program.
Mr. Lane pays for the twice-weekly air time on the independent station KJLA — Thursday and Saturday nights at 11:30, sandwiched between “Bikini Beach” and “Jewelry Central” — and says he is now breaking even, almost two months after the show’s premiere. “Cannabis Planet” focuses on medical, agricultural and industrial uses of the hemp plant, purposely ignoring marijuana’s recreational aspects.
Viewers, for instance, see very little actual smoking, even though the hosts and producers are known to inhale between takes. “We’re walking on eggshells here, to be honest,” Mr. Lane said.
Still, “Cannabis Planet” remains on the air — with not a single complaint from viewers, according to the station.
Marijuana use has been depicted in the media for decades, though its presence has waxed and waned over the decades, from Cheech & Chong’s comedy albums and films in the late 1970s and early ’80s through more recent pot-centric efforts like Dave Chappelle’s “Half-Baked” and Seth Rogen’s “Pineapple Express.” On television, though, it has rarely risen above the level of a plot device or punch line — until recently.
Medical marijuana is now legal in 14 states, and the lobbying organization Norml says efforts to legalize it are under way in 15 other states. Marijuana use remains illegal under federal law, but in a break from prior policies, the Obama administration said in February that federal officials would stop raiding dispensaries of medical marijuana authorized under state law.
Since then the number of dispensaries in California has surged in what some call a “green rush.”
“It’s really blown up,” said Jay Peterson, a production executive at Original Productions, which is working with Blue Dream Media to create a reality show set at a pot collective, or distribution center, in Hollywood. The show, “Top Bud,” is envisioned as a cross between “LA Ink,” the TLC show produced by Original about a lively tattoo parlor, and “Weeds,” the Showtime hit drama about a dope-dealing mother of two.
“While the drug is illegal in most states, the idea is to show that there’s a world somewhere where it’s legal, and where people are doing this,” Mr. Peterson said.
The producers are now trying to sell “Top Bud” to networks. Mr. Peterson acknowledged there was some hesitancy at first but said his company already had “solid interest.”
There are similar stirrings in the scripted TV world. On “Glee,” Fox’s new high school musical, one of the characters is a medical marijuana dealer. At the New York Television Festival next week one of the competing pilot projects seeking a TV network home will be “Rx,” a drama set in the medical marijuana world.
A rash of recent news reports have documented the mainstreaming of pot, citing among other examples frequent drug references in the media and endorsements by a growing list of celebrities. This month Fortune magazine’s cover asks: “Is Pot Already Legal?” CNBC repeats its eight-month-old documentary about the pot business, “Marijuana Inc.,” at least once a week; it continues to be rated one of the channel’s most popular documentaries.
Mr. Lane’s inspiration for “Cannabis Planet” came from a more practical place: he noticed an increasing number of ads in local newspapers for medical cannabis. “It was the only market segment that I saw growing,” he said during dinner at a faded Chinese restaurant on Pico Boulevard.
Mr. Lane has produced on-demand TV shows about snowboarding and surfing for several years. Tired of what he called “the demonization of the cannabis plant,” he wanted to highlight pot’s uses as “fuel, fiber, food and medicine,” as he and his co-hosts often say. He first bought air time on KDOC, an independent station in Orange County, Calif., but in late July station officials apparently grew antsy about the subject matter. He recalled one employee telling him, “We’re a little concerned that the topic is too controversial,” and he was instructed to pull the advertising he had bought for the show. KDOC declined to comment.
Mr. Lane promptly moved “Cannabis Planet” to KJLA, another independent station that reaches an estimated five million households in Southern California, which said it was happy to run the show, with a disclaimer about the content.
A native Californian prone to statements like, "Did you know the War of 1812 was over hemp?," Mr. Lane said he had smoked pot since his sophomore year of college. He is now a medical marijuana user, he said, relying on the drug to curb attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
“Cannabis Planet” is beginning to turn a profit, Mr. Lane said, because of a growing list of advertisers, including companies that sell nutritional supplements for growers and recommend doctors. Now he wants to syndicate the series, he said, and is in talks with stations in San Diego and Denver.
Mr. Lane’s show joins “Cannabis Common Sense,” a weekly cable program in Oregon that started in the late 1990s and is produced by a hemp advocacy group.
Calvina Fay, the executive director of Drug Free America Foundation, said a weekly TV show extolling marijuana as harmless contributes to inappropriate public perceptions of the drug. “They are putting people’s lives in danger as they promote a toxic, harmful weed to sick people and intentionally ignore the harms of it," she said, adding that the drug had been “linked to a plethora of health problems."
Mr. Lane, strenuously disagreeing with the antidrug groups, says his show exists to spread facts about cannabis. That is why he will not present information about recreational uses of marijuana for now.
“Unfortunately, it is still perceived as offensive by too many people,” he said.
A version of this article appeared in print on September 15, 2009, on page C1 of the New York edition.