Why Hollywood's Marijuana Portrayals Are Out of Step With the Times (Guest Column)

Robert Voets/Netflix
Netflix's 'Disjointed'

Recent portrayals in 'Ballers' and 'Disjointed' include outdated depictions of the cannabis industry as it becomes more regulated.

Hollywood has a drug problem.

As America slowly crawls out from under the devastating weight of a failed War on Drugs, much of the entertainment industry still treats legal marijuana as a low-hanging punchline or forgettable, if buzz-worthy backdrop — as opposed to the most significant drug policy shift of our lifetimes.

And I get it. I’ve worked in the regulated cannabis industry since 2009, and I see these compelling stories and the inherent humor on a daily basis. I agree that Hollywood should be telling these stories, and as one of the primary subjects of the MSNBC docuseries Pot Barons, I even have firsthand experience in this still-new confluence of the entertainment and cannabis industries.

But as Hollywood tells these stories, writers and directors should also be more responsible in their depiction of this thoroughly modern entity known as the legal, regulated cannabis business. Most Americans have never experienced this industry firsthand, and so seeing these inaccurate televised depictions only enforces the negative stereotypes that we’ve already moved beyond in post-prohibition markets.

And just as expert consultants play pivotal roles in the writing rooms of medical dramas and crime serials, we’re entering an era where some of these same productions will require authorities from the legal marijuana space to ensure they’re getting it right and not embarrassing themselves — or the responsible entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry.

I first found myself thinking about this a few weeks ago when my fiancé and I sat down for the premiere of Ballers’ third season on HBO. I was thrilled as they teased character Vernon Littlefield’s potential involvement in the cannabis industry; With former Oakland Raider Donovan Carter playing Littlefield, I hoped they might discuss cannabis as a treatment for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy and a replacement for the far more harmful opioids typically prescribed by NFL doctors.

But then (spoiler alert), Ballers started taking some dangerous and misleading creative liberties with the cannabis storyline. In the season premiere, Littlefield ends up wearing a marijuana brand’s hoodie in a lucrative endorsement deal — and he later gives the hoodie to a fan, who inappropriately is a very young teenager. A few weeks later in the season’s third episode, Littlefield’s friend and agent tour the endorsed brand’s marijuana grow, eating and pocketing “free samples” of fresh-from-the-oven infused edibles, with their host’s permission — something the legal, regulated marijuana industry would never tolerate.

Right as we were watching these episodes, Netflix was debuting its new original sitcom Disjointed — a dispensary-set tour de force from hit-maker Chuck Lorre, powerhouse Warner Bros. TV and actress Kathy Bates. I was excited to see such a team come together in the name of a marijuana sitcom, but again, the show’s misrepresentations of the modern cannabis industry prevented me from being able to suspend my disbelief.

In the first few episodes, a middle-aged female patient visits the dispensary run by Ruth (Bates) seeking relief, a familiar scene to my colleagues and I, who see this happen daily. But then the customer consumes the marijuana at the shop, hanging out in the dispensary for hours until Ruth eventually gives her a bottle of cannabis-infused massage oil, “on the house.”

As the dispensary’s employees take smoke breaks inside the grow and on the shop roof, a group of patients rally for a parking-lot smoke-out to protest a neighboring business’ complaint of customers lighting up in front of the dispensary and other nearby businesses.

And while Bates’ character was against the smoke-out, everything I mentioned from these popular TV shows is a far cry from legal marijuana’s current reality. Celebrity investors aren’t handing out merch to children who are too young to consume, as that would be wildly irresponsible. And free samples don’t exist in grows, kitchens and retail outlets where everything is closely monitored by seed-to-sale technology and ever-curious state regulators.

While regulations vary from state to state — including California, where the most robust rules have yet to be implemented — the social consumption of marijuana is still an issue lawmakers are struggling with. But in nearly every legal market in the world, consumption isn’t allowed in the stores selling cannabis, the facilities growing it or the parking lots outside those structures.

As a fan of television, I understand the sacrifice of realism that’s a part of the viewer-creator contract. But as a proud veteran of the cannabis industry, I also know that content creators aren’t making enough of an effort to portray this important, newsworthy industry accurately — and they’re failing on this very basic level to connect with viewers.

Andy Williams is the co-founder and CEO of Colorado-based retail cannabis chain Medicine Man, the co-founder and chairman of the board of nationwide marijuana cultivation consultancy Medicine Man Technologies and a founding partner in phytopharmaceutical company MedPharm.