Discovery Channel’s ‘Weed Country’ series began in Solano County
By Donna Beth Weilenman
A six-part Discovery Channel series that begins Wednesday has its roots in South Solano County, where two men initially wanted to document the stories of medical marijuana, from farm to patient.
And one of the principals who proposed the initial concept for the show said his connection to the industry began when his sister and father both were diagnosed with cancer and sought to replace the conventional drugs that were making them feel even more miserable.
Matt Shotwell, whose Vallejo dispensary was raided and shuttered a year ago to the date of the show’s airing, said he hadn’t been interested in opening a dispensary until then.
A California Maritime Academy graduate, he had been piloting oil tankers, was a third mate in the Merchant Marines, had Department of Defense security clearance and had trained with the Special Forces.
But when his father and sister moved to California to have access to legal medical marijuana, “it was a new revelation to me.”
Since then, he’s studied the plant, learning, among other things, how it had been grown in his native state of Virginia by George Washington.
Inspired by the relief medical marijuana gave his family, he started a nonprofit collective, operated his “brick and mortar” dispensary in Vallejo for two years, pushed for the city’s 10-percent tax on dispensaries, urged a business license for such businesses and made donations to the Empress Theatre, Vallejo’s Main Street program and the Police Athletic League.
He was arrested Feb. 20, 2011, after federal, state and local agents served warrants in both Vallejo and Benicia. The case is still pending.
The irony that the television show debuts one year later isn’t lost on Shotwell. “God has a sense of humor,” he said.
He and producer Kip Baldwin collaborated on creating the initial concept of the show, and Shotwell is one of the stars and a principal.
Discovery Channel describes the six-part series as showing “the battle between cops, dealers and the growers looking to engineer some of the most powerful marijuana on Earth.”
It tells viewers that 18 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized medical marijuana, and two states, Washington and Colorado, have legalized marijuana for recreational use, but said farmers face high risks. In addition, certain levels of law enforcement view the operations as federal felonies.
“Will the growers win the fight to change hardline political and social attitudes?” the cable network asks. “Or will the authorities be able to bring them down once and for all?”
If the program has changed and broadened from the documentary-reality show first conceived by Shotwell and Baldwin, so has Shotwell’s views on marijuana. He now favors legalization for all purposes — but he still sees the medical need for marijuana. “People believe in it,” he said.
While some perceive medical users as modern day “potheads” using illness as an excuse for drug access, Shotwell knows of older people who have found comfort in the drug, including members of his own family who were able to use inhalers or ingest edibles and finally get sleep without the interruptions of retching and other prescription drug side effects.
Marijuana has had “a campaign of misinformation,” Baldwin said. Old tall tales survive, he said: “It was ‘Reefer Madness,’ without the basis of fact.”
The reality was also that some saw hemp as a competitor fiber for paper and nylon, he said.
Baldwin said there are studies in which rats given THC, one of marijuana’s ingredients, had their cancer reduced. “We’re not allowed to see what this drug can do,” Shotwell said. “It’s reckless politics.”
Shotwell agreed that the drug is misunderstood. He said unlike prescription drugs, alcohol or tobacco, marijuana hasn’t killed anyone. And he said regulation of marijuana should be a state issue.
“Different states get to do different things,” similar to states that have legalized gay marriage or choose whether to sell alcohol or remain “dry.”
Shotwell describes the Discovery Channel’s “Weed Country” as a portrait of that industry “from seed to sale,” and said it’s “highlighting the risks and the rewards.”
The show will air its first episode at 7 p.m. Pacific time Wednesday on Discovery Channel. A viewing party has been scheduled at The Rellik Tavern, 726 First St.
“We’re looking forward to bringing it to Benicia,” Shotwell said. “Just show up and watch, come down and shake hands.”