“We’re ground zero,” said Ricardo Baca in regards to our home of Colorado, the first state to legalize marijuana for recreational use. The first-ever marijuana editor for Denver’s news outlet, The Cannabist, Baca had just emerged from the private screening of Rolling Papers, the documentary that will premier at this year’s SXSW.
With a tongue-in-cheek, clever, double entendre film title,“You have me and my colleagues inside the newsroom and the [Denver Post] editor, all of us finding our way throughout the first year of legal recreational sales.”
Rolling Papers centers on Cannabist’s staff writers and freelancers, with Baca in the lead role, as they all enter the unchartered territory of investigative pot journalism, covering and uncovering the volatile cultural, legal, business and economic impacts of legal marijuana.
Prior to this, Baca had been at the Denver Post for some time as an arts and entertainment critic, which is how we came to know each other years ago. He had also be a founder of the Underground Music Showcase festival and launched Reverb.com, the Post’s music blog.
Ricardo Baca, Marijuana Editor, The Cannabist
In the fall of 2013, with January 1 right around the corner, the date when people could legally walk into an authorized location and purchase pot as they would a six-pack of beer, the Post’s editor, Gregory Moore, was making plans for the launch of The Cannabist news site.
In November he made his choice. Given Baca’s experience in covering hundreds of shows and knowledge of the music business, “I knew he was familiar with marijuana,” Moore said in the film’s teaser video. “We just knew he could build something like this from the ground up. He was the perfect choice. He was right under our nose.”
Soon after Rolling Papers director and producer Mitch Dickman, approached Baca with the idea for the film, to capture and chronicle this first year of Cannabist answering the ‘now what?’ question in all its forms. After getting the green light from the Post, the cameras started rolling on January 1, 2014.
I had to ask Baca if it was a bit odd to not only be starting this new position, taking on these new responsibilities, but to go through it with all eyes and cameras on him.
“It made me very nervous. I knew even then, being new in this position, that my job was going to be largely sitting behind a desk, brainstorming, working with writers long-distance, via email and telephone, editing their stories, working with their stories. But not as much as getting out and doing the story. I did warn them of that.”
Of that first meeting, his understanding of the documentary approach was a bit foreign to him, feeling that filmmakers speak in a language that’s doesn’t always make sense to lay people, “They wanted me to be the main character of their documentary. I didn’t really understand what that meant. I was like, ‘Character?! Documentaries are real, there are no characters!’”
Baca recalls Dickman’s response, “Every story has its characters, and in our situation those characters are real people. They’re not saying scripted lines. The journey was individual journeys.”
This came to hold true. Although Dickman’s team had no idea of how anything was going to play out in the following twelve months, and thus, no pre-production plans, the journeys that evolved were reflected in the lives of the Cannabist writers. This included their pot critic, Ry Prichard, “who is super talented,” and was dubbed a weed nerd by Rolling Stone magazine.
Baca adds, “My parenting columnist Brittany Driver, this film is about her and her family, and her struggle finding a way to say, ‘I love weed and I love my toddler son, and now that this is legal, how can I make sure that I’m doing this the right way? How can I advise other parents to enjoy marijuana to make sure they’re not going to get themselves in trouble with this newly legal substance with entities, like child protective services?'”
Filming Denver Post editor, Greg Moore, looking out at the 4/20 Rally at the state capital in Denver
In her piece, “Parenting: ‘Lab Rat’ campaign well-intentioned, but scary messages = fail,” Driver brought to light how Colorado is grappling with legal recreational sales, and at the same time, making efforts to discourage teen marijuana use. “Nobody wants kids to do drugs, legal or otherwise, and an effective campaign against teen use of marijuana should be a component in the states where it is being legalized.” But spending $2 million dollars erecting human-sized rat cages with massive water bottles isn’t the way to achieve those goals.
Her advice instead? “A mass appeal to stress to marijuana consumers their obligation to keep their stash properly secured. Because while the slight statistical decrease of teen marijuana use in Colorado is encouraging, the opposite is true of the increase in the number of pediatric emergency room visits where marijuana is the catalyst.”
Then there’s the topic of pot banking, which according to Baca is completely broken, along with the issue of taxes, which is just as messed up. For this they turn to Denver Post columnist David Migoya. “The majority of the news on that beat is thanks to his tireless work. He’s also an expert on business and banking stories and regulatory structures. He knows what he’s talking about.”
John Wenzel writes on pot culture and John Ingold, who’s been covering Colorado’s legalization of medical cannabis since 2000, reports on the continued rollercoaster ride of marijuana regulation.
Ricardo Baca interviewing then Senator and First Lady of Uruguay, Lucia Topolansky
Just last week Colorado Rep. Jared Polis introduced legislation, aptly named the ‘Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act,’ which would effectively legalize and tax marijuana at the federal level.
“When Jared Polis want to start spreading the word, he calls us because he knows we have the audience into readership that he’s after and were thrilled to help and to have that exclusive,” Baca said of their coverage last Friday. “It’s a very big story, even though most likely it won’t pass.”
But it’s a start to move marijuana away from the DEA and into the ATF, one that has the potential to lower the conflict between state and government laws while impacting incarceration rates for illegal possession of pot.
This topic is one that came up, satirically, by Stephen Colbert in December of 2013 during Baca’s appearance on the Colbert Report. When asked about the amount of pot a non-resident of Spleef Meadows, aka Colorado, could legally buy, Baca told him it was a quarter ounce per day. “That’s a lot of pot! What confuses me most is if everyone in the state can have a quarter ounce of pot in their pocket, how will you indiscriminately arrest young black men? On what grounds would you imprison them?”
No doubt this is on the minds of certain people in power in certain states in this country, sans the laughs and applauses, when the topic of legalization on a federal, or even a state level, arises. It’s definitely worth noting in this debate, when the U.S. Bureau of Criminal Statistics puts the number of African-American men under state and federal criminal justice supervision in 2013 at about 1.68 million — 807,076 above the number of African-American men enslaved in 1850.
“It’s an important moment in time and you need to document it,” which the Cannabist has done well, with a journalistic foundation bred within the Post’s newsroom. “It was so smart of my editor Greg Moore to think and create a position as marijuana editor and such a crazy site is the Cannabist.”
At the same time, to have all these adventures captured on film will add even more historic value. Looking down the list of the Rolling Papers creative team behind the cameras reads like a who’s who of Colorado filmmaking. Most people were either friends of Baca or became friends over the course of filming.
This includes producer Britta Erickson, director of the annual Starz Denver Film Festival and producer of the Convention documentary, a person whom Baca has known for over fifteen years. Another friend is Daniel Junge, an Academy Award and Emmy winning filmmaker who has his own film, Being Evel, premiering in SXSW.
At the time of filming Baca had already built a trustworthy relationship with the director, Dickman, over the course six or seven years. Prior to Rolling Papers, Dickman had directed another documentary, Hanna Ranch, which Baca said, “Gave me even more respect for Mitch professionally and I couldn’t of been more proud to be working with him. So yes, it was those existing connections to these individuals that gave me the trust and a willingness to say, ‘Yes, I absolutely agree to you guys coming into my home, in my workplace, and into my family’s home.”
Rolling Papers filming in Uruguay
We’ve seen in years past when those reporting the news became the news, which isn’t always good news, as seen in the story of a certain nightly news anchor. This film, on the other hand, will promises to extend the news and learning opportunity The Cannabist and its people provide on a daily basis.
The Rolling Papers pot documentary (it’s tempting, but please refrain from combining those two words together to create a new film genre) has it’s world premiere at SXSW, Sunday, March 15, 9:30pm at the Vimeo Theatre (201 Trinity St.). Additional screenings include Tuesday, March 17 at 7:30pm, Alamo Drafthouse Lamar, Theater B (1120 S. Lamar Blvd.), and Saturday, March 21 at 2:15pm, Stateside Theatre (719 Congress Ave).