Here’s something every good journalist knows: Even with the most over-covered story, there’s always a fresh angle. Colorado’s legalization of recreational marijuana in 2013 sparked report after report on the rise of new businesses, the ongoing battles with disapproving cops, and the debate over whether weed has become socially acceptable. Meanwhile, at The Denver Post’s “The Cannabist” department, a small team of critics and reporters—under the guidance of editor Ricardo Baca—has been spending the past few years writing everything from reviews of different pot strains to in-depth investigations into the dangerously fluctuating THC content of edibles. And because documentarian Mitch Dickman’s crew began shadowing Baca’s team close to the launch of The Cannabist, his film Rolling Papers has its own unique perspective on how Colorado’s adjusted to the new normal (or NORML, as it were).
In just under 80 minutes, Rolling Papers introduces enough ideas to fuel six documentaries—and with multiple layers to each. When Baca takes the lead on covering the inconsistent (or non-existent) potency of pot candy, that 10 minutes or so of the film is partly about how legality has to go hand-in-hand with responsible labeling. But it’s also about how Baca scrambles to get up to speed on the terminology, history, and processes of marijuana processing, to establish credibility on his new beat. Similarly, when Dickman checks in with The Cannabist’s parenting columnist Brittany Driver, those segments range into a number of different areas: from Driver’s worry that writing enthusiastically about dope will get her in trouble with Child Protective Services, to one of Baca’s more straitlaced Post colleagues arguing that it’s irresponsible to run articles where a mother boasts about being baked.
The downside to Rolling Papers’ wide range is that none of these subtopics gets as much screen-time as it deserves. Typically, Dickman jumps to a Cannabist-related subject, does a little fly-on-the-wall observation of a journalist at work, has that reporter talk about the complexities of the marijuana laws and culture, and then moves on—as though this whole film were one long pitch for the documentary or documentaries he could make. Also, Dickman can’t resist getting a little droll, whether he’s asking nearly every interviewee, “Are you high right now?” or running badass hip-hop under a shot of Driver pushing her toddler in a stroller.
Rolling Papers might be better if it took the time to explore some of its elements more thoroughly. (What does it take to be an insightful pot critic? Do readers or growers ever take issue with the reviews?) But to his credit, Dickman maintains a strong focus on the real premise of this documentary. At a time when news organizations everywhere are closing down, The Denver Post is attempting to attract new readers by applying legit journalistic resources to an underserved market. Rolling Papers doesn’t provide any numbers to settle the question of whether The Cannabist is a hit—or, more importantly, a revenue-generator—but Dickman does capture the tenuousness of the whole arrangement. If Colorado scraps the legalized marijuana experiment, The Cannabist is doomed. If The Cannabist is too critical of the pot business, the public could turn against it.
Yet to Baca’s credit, he and his writers are seen in Rolling Papers pursuing some ambitious, not always unambiguously pro-weed articles. They look at the controversy over using cannabidiol to treat diseases and disorders in juveniles, and the persistence of veteran dealers in selling their products outside the law. And at the end of the film, Baca himself travels to Uruguay to file a series of pieces on how that country’s approach to regulating marijuana compares to Colorado’s, both favorably and unfavorably. That couldn’t have been a cheap trip to take, but it’s the kind of necessary legwork that a big paper like The Denver Post used to do regularly, before the industry collapsed. At its best, Rolling Papers is like a paean to old-fashioned journalism, with its curious, intrepid writers—backed by well-heeled publishers—diligently finding and piecing-together important stories in the public interest. If Dickman had really wanted to be clever, he could’ve called this movie Potlight.