The television industry is catching up with film and learning that pot sells in Hollywood.
As more states join the legal marijuana movement and the drug becomes less taboo in the country, entertainment industry insiders say interest in weed-related storylines is at an all-time high.
Showtime series “Shameless,” for instance, which follows Chicago’s dysfunctional Gallagher family and stars William H. Macy and Emmy Rossum, will embark on a major weed arc later this year. The network is also responsible for the mother of all television pot tales, “Weeds,” which starred Mary-Louise Parker as soccer-mom-turned-drug-dealer. The series blazed trails (and spliffs) from 2005 to 2012 and helped put Showtime on the original-programming map.
Showtime isn’t the only pot-obsessed programmer, though; CNBC is in Season 2 of its series “Marijuana in America,” and “60 Minutes” struck ratings gold with a recent pot segment that drew in a whopping 17 million viewers.
But, do audiences have the munchies for more of the chemically enhanced TV product?
“It’s sort of like the new Gold Rush,” Chris Linn, truTV’s president and head of programming, told TheWrap.”There is great curiosity around it right now.”
That curiosity prompted the network to recently shoot a pilot for a new reality show called “Medicine Man,” about a dynastic family pot dispensary.
“Right now TV is well ahead of the game when it comes to pushing the envelope,” said Elayne Rapping, pop culture author and American Studies professor emeritus at the University of Buffalo. “Hollywood is definitely going to see a rise in pot-related stories.”
Once considered a gateway to harder drugs, pot is going mainstream with 23 states and the District of Columbia having either legalized medical marijuana, decriminalized it or both, according to the National Cannabis Industry Association. Four more states — Alabama, North Carolina, Nebraska and Ohio — have decriminalized pot possession.
“It’s no longer a niche culture,” Linn said. “What’s so interesting to us about ‘Medicine Man’ is that the family wants their dispensary to become the Starbucks of weed. This is definitely a space we’re interested in and want to explore.”
While Linn’s show is set in Colorado, California was the first state to establish a medical marijuana program in 1996, a move that experts say brought about a boom in pot-centric Hollywood plot lines.
The film industry had explored the topic going all the way back to 1936’s unintentionally funny “Reefer Madness,” through the 1980s exploits of high-larious comedy duo Cheech and Chong, into comedies produced by and starring black actors like Ice Cube‘s “Friday” series and rapper-marijuana advocate Snoop Dogg’s thespian turns, and on to the THC-induced misadventures of characters portrayed by some of today’s most visible stars like Seth Rogen and James Franco.
But while casual pot use has permeated mainstream film for decades and was explored as a gateway drug in some of the industry’s more sobering cautionary drug-use dramas, TV — aside from the frequent dealer-villains and sad-sack addict stereotypes — for the most part just said no.
“Weeds” was a game-changer with its white, middle-class mom-dealer, portrayed more as spunky survivor and entrepreneur. The Season 4 premiere attracted 1.3 million viewers, the channel’s highest-ever viewership at the time, with the season as a whole averaging 962,000 viewers. And because “Weeds” aired on premium cable, its writers weren’t constrained by overzealous censors or squeamish advertisers. The storylines got darker as perky Nancy Botwin unraveled from season to season.
Showtime was “doing it way before it was acceptable,” explained “Shameless” executive producer, Nancy Pimental.” “Now that it’s gone mainstream, we’re going to see a lot more of it.”
It hasn’t always been that easy to portray the high life in prime time. Fox comedy “That ’70s Show,” which aired from 1998-2006 and explored relations among a group of Wisconsin teens, sent producers scrambling to find creative ways to portray pot use without actually saying or showing it. Even though the show’s main characters got stoned almost every episode (mostly in Eric’s basement), viewers were hard-pressed to find any mention of marijuana. Censors initially approved the scenes, as long as no one actually spoke of it.
“They never passed a joint,” revealed actor Tommy Chong, of Cheech and Chong fame who played aging hippie Leo on the sitcom. “They just sat in a circle and the camera did closeups on their faces. The censors eventually put an end to those scenes.”
“They” included Topher Grace (“Interstellar”), Laura Prepon (Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black”) and now-parents Ashton Kutcher (CBS’s “Two and a Half Men”) and Mila Kunis (February sci-fi film release “Jupiter Ascending”).
Fast forward nearly two decades.
According to a 2013 Partnership for Drug-Free Kids Attitude Tracking Study (PDF), 44 percent of over 3,700 teens surveyed reported using marijuana at least once in their lives; approximately one in three (36 percent) reported using in the past year; one in four (24 percent) reported using within the prior month; and 7 percent reported using at least 20 times within the past month.
“These levels have remained basically flat over the past five years,” according to the report — that is, while the marijuana-legalization movement was picking up steam.
“The majority of teens said ‘getting into trouble with the law’ was the greatest risk that would prevent them from using marijuana – which does reinforce the view that legalization of marijuana for recreational use would lead to wider use among teens,” the report also noted.
(Interestingly, the Partnership report thanked actors union SAG-AFTRA “and the advertising and media industries for their ongoing generosity” in support of the non-profit.)
Now, with legalization underway, sparking a joint has nearly become more acceptable than lighting a cigarette — at least in Hollywood. And networks are jonesing for the next green hit.
FX tried to score with “Wilfred,” in which Elijah Wood‘s dog smoked massive amounts of weed when he wasn’t digging holes in the backyard, but the series ended its run in 2014. The year before, Discovery dedicated an entire night to marijuana programming, branding it “Weed Wednesdays.” Now in its fifth season, the cast of Comedy Central’s “Workaholics” give the phrase “smoking break” a whole new meaning.
Powering the movement is real-life politics.
On Jan. 1, Colorado celebrated its one-year anniversary of legal recreational marijuana use. Washington State will mark its first year of pot legality in June, while Oregon and Alaska will follow them in 2016.
Voters in Wasington, D.C., also approved recreational marijuana use, but the law is still pending congressional approval.
Interestingly, not only did the sky in those states not fall — as many predicted — their economies have gotten a much-needed shot in the arm.
Denver was able to boost its economy with more than $60 million dollars in new weed-tax revenue. The city is also seeing a decrease in violent crime, while traffic fatalities and unemployment are down statewide.
The marijuana boom is also creating new, never-before-seen advertising opportunities. In October, hundreds of so-called “ganjapreneurs” made their way to New York for a pot convention with high hopes of learning about the business side of the cannabis industry and to check out some of the latest weed products.
“G FarmaLabs,” for example, is pushing high-potency THC-infused chocolates that won first place at this summer’s Kush Expo in California.
“Apeks Supercritical” came out with a CO2-powered fluid-extraction system that looks a lot like an espresso machine, but is actually used to make highly concentrated essential oils including THC, the main psychoactive constituent of the Cannabis plant.
And earlier this month, reality star Bethenny Frankel, who sold her “Skinnygirl” brand of cocktails for a reported $120 million, announced she was launching a new line of products called “Skinnygirl Marijuana,” laced with a strain of pot that supposedly doesn’t give you the munchies.
If you think that’s crazy, how about a celebrity brand name of your favorite weed strain?
“Strains of marijuana have been named after celebrities for years,” said marketing expert Chad Kawalec. “‘Lindsay Lohan’ has been an especially successful strain, although Lohan had nothing to do with it. Going forward, that simply won’t happen. Celebrities will license their names to growers in order to extend and keep their brands relevant and to make cold hard cash — just like with celebrity fragrances. It’s going to be very interesting.”
But some believe the gentrification of pot could end up being a buzzkill.
“I started smoking pot in high school,” said “Shameless” actor Macy, who stars in the series as the ne’er-do-well dad. “So for me, it’s just not that interesting.”
That sentiment was echoed by his boss. “Now that it’s acceptable, smoking pot is no big deal,” Pimental said. “We need to push the envelope more. It’s almost becoming too common, and we don’t do common.”
Whether or not the traditional stoner shows go up in smoke remains to be seen. But industry insiders say viewers may be introduced to a whole new group of toking characters.
“What we may see is a different kind of stoner,” said film and TV producer Troy Miller, whose credits include the “Dumb and Dumber” prequel “Dumb and Dumberer.” “It’s no longer about the guy who can’t hold a job and gets stoned in his mother’s basement, but productive people who happen to enjoy a joint at the end of the day.”