Rolling Papers is a thoroughly engaging documentary about an unfinished story. After all, when it comes to the legalization of marijuana in America, Colorado’s decision to become the first recreationally legal state in 2014 was revolutionary, but also only the start of a significantly larger and more complex issue. At the center of legalization in Colorado (and also the documentary) is The Denver Post. As one of the pre-eminent newspapers left standing for the state, when even the venerable and long-running Rocky Mountain News went defunct not long before the film takes place, the Post is left in the complicated position of becoming the first established publication to include marijuana news, culture, and issues in its pages.
To that end, a newspaper couldn’t hope for a better or more dedicated editor than Ricardo Baca. The editor of what would eventually become the Post’s offshoot news magazine, The Cannabist, Baca is put in a position equal parts powerful and unenviable as the face of America’s first dedicated weed section in a daily newspaper. For his part, Baca is up to the challenge, searching for everybody from educated critics to parent bloggers to beat reporters, as he deals with complications ranging from resistance even within the newspaper to Child Protective Services’ still-legal right to take children away from parents who indulge in the new freedoms of the state to Whoopi Goldberg, who, as Rolling Papers suggests, was both an advocate for and part-time contributor to The Cannabist and a woman willing to renounce her involvement at the first sign of blowback.
Rolling Papers touches ably on how legalization is still being complicated by the dichotomy between an increasing number of states’ interest in recreational marijuana and its continual illegality at the federal level. Because of this, Baca can still be scrutinized, and it’s implied (albeit mercifully not realized) that any of Baca’s writers could come under fire just for having been part of a site that requires their open admission of legal/illegal drug use. Compounding this problem is the “green rush” of companies attempting to profit from the boom, regardless of the quality or even safety of their products. Baca’s crack investigative staff delves into this, exposing fraudulent suppliers as they’re accused of playing for the wrong side. Through it, Baca is insistent that “the consistency and the integrity of the marijuana industry matters.” It’s a complicated time for the new boom, and Baca’s readily aware that it would take precious little to fulfill the worst fears of alarmists like Nancy Grace and others who aggressively fight legalization.
It’s a complicated and unfinished subject, and not even Baca’s sojourn to Uruguay offers many answers. That nation fully embraced legal pot at the federal level, and yet there are still problems; locals complain about the poorly grown, government-approved “Paraguayan Piss” sold in drugstores, and many see legalization less as a benefit than as something forced upon them by a government lacking much of an idea about how to implement it and looking to appease its citizens. Colorado looks a lot better by contrast, but there’s still the issue of the federal “War on Drugs” hardly being over even as individual states’ citizens start to demand the right to decide for themselves. If there’s one point that’s hit hard and often by Rolling Papers, it’s that there are no guarantees and that those decrying legalization because of safety concerns aren’t entirely invalid. If anything, the film argues that the only way to answer these questions is to keep pursuing them, instead of the willful refusal that’s met them for many years.
Baca remains steadfast throughout a year fraught with changing staff, uncertain journalistic territory, and more practical concerns; the film slyly observes at times how The Cannabist is as much as anything a gamble that could allow the Post to survive when so many other papers are collapsing around it. Despite the film’s slightness at times (the clichéd EDM and reggae score is worth a chuckle for the first few minutes and is then obnoxious thereafter) and the necessarily limited scope of its access to the Post’s pilot mission, Rolling Papers is concerned about all the right things, namely the integrity of journalism in the internet age and the importance of reporting on all stories, rather than just those that readers would most like to hear. It’s an unfinished story, and with Alaska and Washington also embracing recreational legalization, it’s only just getting started. Now, Baca and The Denver Post can say something nobody else will be able to: they were there first.