Weedmaps' 'Uprooted' Docuseries Probes Unfulfilled Promise of Legal Cannabis in California

Putting a human face on complex issues

"I really can't tell you how many times I've made deliveries, personally, on my bike, and when I come into the patient's house, they're completely in tears. And they repeat that they would already have died if it wasn't for Sweetleaf. And that's why we do what we do. That's why we feel it's so important. That's why we fight so hard."

Joe Airone, founder of Sweetleaf Collective, which provides free medical marijuana to HIV/AIDS and cancer patients in San Francisco who can't otherwise access or afford their treatments, chokes up on those words during one of his interview segments in Uprooted, a long-form docuseries that dives into the complexities of California's legal cannabis industry.

Airone appears along with various experts, entrepreneurs, patients and consumers in the three-part offering from Weedmaps, a technology and advocacy platform for the cannabis sector. The videos, each running about 15 minutes, explore the unexpected consequences that arose after the 2016 passage of Proposition 64, legalizing adult-use marijuana in the state. Director Nicholas Holt and writer Lesley Nickus probe the barriers to entry still faced by vendors of color and analyze the roadblocks and misperceptions that stifle access and fair competition.

"Our goal with this film project is to put a human face on the industry and on its history, and remind everyone that policy issues directly impact the lives and livelihoods of thousands of people," Weedmaps brand director Rebecca Larzik tells Muse. "The illicit market is thriving. Today, more than 70 percent of California municipalities prohibit cannabis business [Prop 64 allowed local governments to regulate legal weed], and the people who should be first in line for business opportunities in this industry are too often told to wait somewhere else. That's not what legalization should look like."

This two-minute trailer provides a preview of the series' straightforward style, bridging journalism and advocacy in a heartfelt appeal for empathy and understanding:

And here are the full episodes. The first, "California's Complicated," explains why an "effective prohibition" on cannabis still exists in much of the state despite Prop 64's passage:

Next, in "Patients Left Behind," we hear stirring tales from the front, as practitioners describe how the promise of medicinal marijuana can frequently go unfulfilled:

Finally, "Inadequate and Inequitable" looks at the askew economics of the marketplace and explains why communities of color were pummeled mightily in America's failed war on drugs:

This summer, Ryan Durr, an associate creative director at Team One, took a similar approach with Chasing Hope, a mini-doc about stigmas surrounding legal CBD oil used for medical treatment in Texas. Weedmaps' Uprooted likewise digs deep to unearth uncomfortable truths about the industry and marijuana's prospects moving forward. With Election Day imminent, Weedmaps believes California's experience can serve as a cautionary tale about potential risks and pitfalls as more states look to legalize medicinal and adult-use marijuana.

So far, the project's landing page has generated more than 12,000 pageviews over 6,200 sessions, with the clips garnering 66,000+ total impressions on YouTube.

In our conversation below, edited for length and clarity, Larzik discusses the project and the evolving future of legal cannabis:

Why do a long-form video series?

Rebecca Larzik: Weedmaps executives gave us the green light to dig into the story of California's cannabis market, but it really came to life when our writer/producer Lesley Nickus started interviewing sources and realized the problems in the state's cannabis market were much deeper than a short-form project would convey. She leaned on her background in journalism to draw out an objective narrative and make recommendations for how this would eventually take shape.

What we found was that the topic is too complex to cover in a social post or article. To adequately convey the message, it was necessary to establish the history, examine the issues and educate viewers on a deeper level. Nearly every person we interviewed has committed their lives to cannabis. These are people's real lives. We really strove to show what they were going through, and what they had, and still have, to overcome.

For us, it was a story worth telling because it furthered our efforts to educate and advance awareness of the cannabis industry and the struggles that exist within it. Education was always at the heart of this project.

Who exactly is the audience?

The primary target audience here was cannabis consumers in California. The goal was to shine a light on the fact that, for those who voted for Prop 64, their intent has not been carried out fully. The promise a lot of people thought they were buying into has not been fulfilled. Oftentimes, people don't realize people around them are struggling. We're attempting to appeal to the heart. We hope that by telling the story through the eyes of the people living it, Californians would be motivated to pay closer attention.

Secondarily, the audience consists of people outside California in states that are in the process of or considering legalization. The state made many missteps that could be avoided in future markets as they come online.

Are you hoping people will take some specific acton, or affect changes in public policy?

We hope this series helps to educate viewers so that they can support a more equitable and open legal cannabis economy. We wanted to show all the work it took by a lot of people to get to the point where we could go into a dispensary and purchase cannabis. The industry was built by people who have been disenfranchised by the War on Drugs, many of whom are still incarcerated and unable to take part in the very system they supported.

California voters wanted open cannabis markets. It's up to each of us to make sure it gets done right. We hope that this series will inspire viewers to start in their own communities; vote local, do research and make their own voices heard. If viewers wish to go further afield, we have listed organizations they can support in this area on our Uprooted landing page.

Can you talk a bit about the production process?

The storyline and pre-production started in November 2019 and filming began in December. Considering the research, interview prep, sourcing and logistics, this turnaround time was very quick. By the end of January, we had completed 25 interviews and filmed in 35 different locations across California with a crew of only eight. Covid hit as we were going into the final stages of production, halting travel and keeping our team working from home, which presented challenges.

Specifically, how did Covid impede your progress?

We had to pivot and change the format of our final three interviews, which we conducted virtually, and this required some creative editing in post. We had to adjust our due dates and ensure our team's safety was a priority. The post-production schedule took so much longer than originally planned, due to the transition to full-time work from home from mid-March onwards. This left our small crew without access to servers, shared drives or our robust edit stations.

We originally planned for the series to have five episodes, but we ended up moving forward with three for our first season, in the interest of making production deadlines.

How are you sharing and hyping the series?

Ahead of the episodes' release, Weedmaps promoted the trailer on all social platforms, including YouTube, Twitter and IGTV. The IGTV trailer was viewed over 20,000 times. On launch day, we took an integrated approach, and had all three episodes go live on the Uprooted landing page. Over the days following the launch, we continued to drive traffic to the Uprooted landing page via press coverage, banner ads on our consumer facing platform, and through posts on our social channels. We also launched all three episodes on IGTV and Facebook on Sept. 28.

How does this drive Weedmaps' brand evolution?

Weedmaps is committed to supporting legal, well-regulated cannabis marketplaces around the world, and we're vocal advocates for maximizing the number of dispensary licenses in the markets we serve. Weedmaps believes this industry belongs to everyone, especially those who have been most maligned by the war on drugs. We advocate for ease of access to the legal market for both consumers and entrepreneurs, some of whom shared their struggles as part of the Uprooted episodes.

We believe in a thriving market of hundreds of locally owned and small and medium business and retail locations—a market with a few companies controlling everything doesn't work for anyone. If a vibrant cannabis industry doesn't exist, we don't succeed.

David Gianatasio
David Gianatasio is managing editor at Clio Awards.

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