Do you get high? Well, now you can do it legally in Colorado. Legalization has opened a Pandora’s box of cultural, economic, and political issues, most of which are still developing. Essentially, Colorado is a guinea pig in a social experiment. And now, there’s a team documenting Colorado’s journey towards marijuana normalization.
The Denver Documentary Collective is currently shooting a feature length documentary entitled “Rolling Papers.” The filmmaking team is composed of co-directors Mitch Dickman and Daniel Junge; director of photography Zachary Armstrong; and producers Britta Erickson, Karl Kister, Alison Greenberg Millice, and Katie Shapiro. Junge and Greenberg Millice each took home an Oscar for their short 2012 documentary “Saving Face.” Now the team is collaborating to tell the interlacing stories of the cultural, economic and political aspects of legalization. The objective goal of the project is to complete a rough cut in the fall of 2014 in time to submit to the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. (You can follow the team’s progress here.)
The project didn’t start out as a story about legalization. Junge and Millice have been exploring Colorado’s relationship with weed since 2010, when President Obama announced that the DEA would not be making medical marijuana a priority. With the federal strait jacket loosened, medical marijuana dispensaries began proliferating in Colorado. With Millice’s help, Junge started filming.
Millice and Junge soon found out that, “there was no ‘there, there.'” That is to say, there wasn’t a particular story with a distinct character to latch onto. Instead, there was a homogenous parade of smaller legal scuffles surrounding the legal trappings of medical marijuana. As Millice says, “we saw that there was no real story arc at that point, just a bunch of ongoing legal and political battles and we struggled because we didn’t have an objective story teller.”
Flash forward five years. Not only had weed been legalized for recreational use, the Denver Post had appointed the first ever marijuana editor, Ricardo Baca. The “Rolling Papers” team found the missing piece to their puzzle: a protagonist. Baca, who now runs the Denver Post’s online publication ‘The Cannabist’ is “basically [their] storyteller as [they] delve into everything that’s happened in Colorado.” As the team is finding out, Baca isn’t just the key to telling the story of an illicit industry surfacing into the light. He also opens the door to a story about a crucial institution receding into the shadows.
It’s no secret that print journalism is ebbing in the 21st century. The appointment of Baca to his post is a gambit for broadened societal relevance and it didn’t go unnoticed. According to Millice, Baca “was approached with basically every major media news outlet around the world and that was the story… The Denver Post has decided to validate this industry in such a way.” The ‘Rolling Papers’ team intends to take advantage of the Denver Post’s bold experiment. Along with Baca, the documentary will also follow the team of journalists Baca has assembled to cover the impact of legalization as it develops. With Baca as a central focus, “there’s two stories going of marijuana and also of journalism.”
While finding Baca has helped the team focus the narrative around a charismatic protagonist, the full story is still quite hazy (pun maybe kind of intended). As Junge says, “I think it’s too soon to know what the arc(s) will be, but clearly this is about a sea change in the nation seen from the inside — even inside a mainstream institution like the Denver Post.”