CNBCfix review: Trish Regan’s
untapped states’ rights epic,
‘Marijuana USA,’ is clearly for
recreational purposes only

          Posted: Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Sometimes, sequels break new ground and galvanize a media franchise.

Other times, you get "Die Hard II." (And "III.")

Trish Regan's "Marijuana Inc.," premiering in winter 2009, was such a ratings hit that CNBC was compelled to do a follow-up, "Marijuana USA."

This time, Regan has dialed down the highs and delivered the mind-expanding impact of a cup of coffee — blowing a tremendous opportunity to scrutinize Barack Obama's approach to states' rights.

Just about everything in the sequel, which falls under the network's long-form programming division rather than business news, can be considered inferior to the original, which despite being entertaining, wasn't particularly groundbreaking either. "Pot is going mainstream," Regan declares, and when haven't you heard that before.

The original had funnier commentary and more provocative individuals and pundits. It also featured quite a fashion show on the part of Regan, who has since delivered twins and tones it down in this episode, save for smoldering black leather zippered garb she dons in Kentucky.

Instead of Northern California, Regan spends much of her time in Denver, which is gingerly embracing the medical marijuana industry. Her primary subjects are Scott Durrah and Wanda James, a prominent couple who have done fund-raising for Barack Obama and run a restaurant that caters to medical marijuana users and teaches them how to cook with it, for example, with a quiche. (Their Web site notes they hosted a viewing party of this program.)

Durrah, a former Marine, and James are a thoughtful couple. For them this is obviously serious business. Maybe too serious, reflecting the trouble Regan has in finding the right tone for this subject. Regan notes that despite the apparent statewide legality of what Durrah and James are doing, their pot-growing operation was raided in February. Regan doesn't go into details, but a Denver TV report on the subject says, according to police, neighboring businesses summoned authorities. "It was making customers sick and it was something they reported to police because they weren't sure what it was," according to police. James insisted, "Our lease clearly states we are growing marijuana there, it wasn't a secret from anybody. The owner knows, the developer knew."

If anything, Regan is the one having too much fun. By this point, she owes it to her viewers to explain where she stands on legalization. Constantly smiling, Regan seems to cheer on whoever she's interviewing, whether it's Durrah and James or the Kentucky state police. If there is a serious health problem, or public risk, or constitutional-rights infringement here, you'd never know it from the host. The inference from her demeanor has to be that she thinks this is all kinda cool. Or maybe she just reflects public perception of the issue, which has taken a back seat among conservatives who oppose it despite a legalization defeat at the California polls.

Regan has at least 2 fascinating angles to develop. One is the likely court challenge ahead. The other is the actual effectiveness of marijuana as a painkiller. Regan, very disappointingly, shuns both angles.

The way the legal system in this country generally works, local municipalities can set up whatever law they want.

Until a bunch of people start caring about it. When that happens, the U.S. Supreme Court has to decide if everyone has the right, or no one.

Certainly someone in Kentucky will be asking the legal system to explain why it's OK for someone in Colorado to possess a federally banned substance and not OK for someone in Kentucky. Barack Obama's 2009 edict — mentioned prominently by Regan — that instructs the Justice Department to defer to local marijuana laws seems, at a minimum, a curious victory for states' rights it doesn't seem eager to confer in the category of immigration.

As evidence that marijuana has faded as a polarizing subject, few people probably know or recall that, as Regan notes, "this single memo turned 70 years of prohibition on its head." According to the New York Times of March 18, 2009, it means "enforcement policy would now be restricted to traffickers who falsely masqueraded as medical dispensaries and 'use medical marijuana laws as a shield'.” So apparently the federal authorities will be determining whether citizens are breaking state laws.

As compelling as that angle is, there's another. Exactly how useful are herbs in the medical field?

This is where Dr. Meg Haney of Columbia comes in. Haney, we learn, is a prominent researcher of the healing claims of herbs. Regan says "she warns of the small but real risk of dependency." Haney says she's willing to accept the healing qualities provided there's data, which she says doesn't really exist yet.

That's the other issue that's bigger than marijuana: Humans' desire to feel better than they generally do. And the massive cottage industry spawned from it. Regan doesn't get anywhere near alternative treatments such as chiropractic and acupuncture or suggest a range of therapies that are regulated vs. those that are not. The general belief, presumably, is that those industries don't affect non-users. Is it the government's responsibility to determine effectiveness of therapies people choose for themselves? On some level, the answer has been a resounding yes; that's why we have prescriptions.

Regan explains the system in Denver. She talks to Dr. James Boland, who writes prescriptions that allow patients to receive a medical marijuana card. He says when someone comes in just wanting to get high, he rejects them.

But this 2010 article in Denver's Westword News indicates that Boland isn't maybe the most discerning evaluator. It reports that a woman named Karen, seeking relief from knee-surgery pain, visited Boland, who "didn't seem to mind that she hadn't brought medical records. 'It was like, down to business, boom-boom-boom,' she remembers. After meeting with her for five minutes, Boland signed Karen's recommendation for medical marijuana," which then led her into a troubling discovery of how patients on financial aid are essentially "sold" to dispensaries, "sometimes buying them in packs of fifty."

In the legal and public-policy arenas these are groundbreaking developments. As a TV sequel, this is a paint-by-numbers update on Regan's first program. First we are to be shocked that mariijuana dispensing is happening out in the open, then we get the concerned parent (Stacey Howell), who like the parent in the first program really doesn't sound all that horrified (she is OK with marijuana use by those in extreme pain).

One of those people in pain is Scott Snouffer. With a deformed abdomen, there is no doubting this person's discomfort. He says pot works. What didn't work is Regan's crew's attempt to simulate Snouffer's hallucinations by blurring the camera's depiction of the TV set, an almost laughable moment of the program.

We also get the police, this time not feds but Kentucky State Police and Lt. Brent Roper, a hardy, principled officer who is exactly the type of person anyone should want enforcing their laws, whatever they choose those laws to be.

Roper questions why anyone would want to legalize marijuana. This is where Regan misses another chance to draw a parallel. She could point out that the national trend toward various substances is exactly opposite what's happening in Colorado and California. Crackdowns against cigarettes and drunken driving have only been increasing for decades. Drugstores have to hide certain cold medicines. The first lady warns against obesity and San Francisco, not too far from that Northern California pot-growing epicenter, thinks Happy Meals are too dangerous.

Roper sees marijuana as financing trade in other illicit substances. Regan's footage of Roper's unit is maybe the most effective part of her program, showing the difficulties and danger they face in unearthing pot-growing operations. Watching a helicopter haul away a stash, one has to wonder how much more is out there, whether this is a hopeless endeavor.

Regan also goes abroad, to Portugal, which she said has the most liberal drug laws and views them as a success. Indeed, no one seems to complain, though Regan questions if taxpayers want to support rehab. Joao Goulao, Portugal's drug overseer, says abuse is "a self-inflicted disease." Regan interviews a man named Alexander with a drug past who she says is now able to be a broadcast engineer without a record. Alexander says "I don't think I'm going to smoke a joint, makes me a criminal," but he is shaking as he speaks, making one wonder how effective his treatment has been. Regan, citing proof of the assertions that liberalizing the laws caused fewer teens to do drugs, corrals a group of cute young women outside a nightclub who insist, almost on cue, that they don't smoke pot because it's dangerous.

Regan notably, other than a press-conference clip of Dianne Feinstein, doesn't get any Denver politicians on the record, or members of Congress. It seems this will come down to whether local governments decide to take action against the likes of Scott Durrah and Wanda James. Somehow, despite the massive regulation and legislative acknowledgment in Denver, it feels like the state of Colorado's position is not going to be the last word on the subject. Sometime, somewhere, the cops will be back, and so will Regan's crew.

"Marijuana USA" (2010)

Featuring: Scott Durrah, Wanda James, President Barack Obama, Eric and Stacey Howell, Chris Bartkowicz, Samantha Sandt, Jeff Sweetin, Dr. James Boland, Scott Snouffer, Margaret "Meg" Haney, Lt. Brent Roper, Richard Nixon, Joao Goulao, Nuno Capaz, Gil Kerlikowske, Richard Lee, Dianne Feinstein, Matt Cook, Bob Winnicki

Correspondent: Trish Regan
Senior executive producer: Mitch Weitzner
Producers: Nina Alvarez, Na Eng
Field producer: Morgan Brasfield
Editors: Mark I. Brodie, Conrad deVroeg, Lisa Orlando, Allison Stedman
Camera: Hank Bargine, Marcel Cabrera, Dave Dellaria, Joe Dewitt, Don Garcia, Matt Green, Alex Herrera, Zumi Hidalgo, Marco Mastrorilli, Gerard Miller, Tom Miller, Mark Neuling, Scott Ransom
Audio: David Grogan, Zumi Hidalgo, Magnus Macedo, Trevor Nordeen, Dale Raley, Robert Salyer, David Schumacher, Eric Williams
Additional editor: Gary Vandenbergh
Additional camera: Nina Alvarez
Global creative director: Victoria Todis
Senior designer/animator: Jacqueline Dessel
Designer/animator: Michael Schwartz
Production manager: Tracy Lawrence
Field production: Robert Salyer, Alexandre Vaz
Music archivists: Salvatore Carosone, Lauren Ricci
Media coordinator: Richard Marko
Manager and chief photographer: Angel Perez
Director of Post Production: Vito Tattoli
Unit manager: Pamela Gaskins
Interns: Tana Ferris, Carrie Hojnicki, Rita Warkov, Brittany Watts
Vice president, long form programming: Ray Borelli

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