It’s a sunny day in Portland, Oregon, and the kids are stoned. They’re high because they want to live.
Journalist Krishna Andavolu is at a barbecue for kids with cancer, specifically for kids whose families believe that hyper-potent marijuana candies can treat their cancer more effectively than traditional chemotherapy.
It’s widely accepted that medical marijuana can be used to mitigate the side effects of cancer treatments. But these kids aren’t getting high to stop nausea. They’re using pot to cure their cancer.
“Stoned Kids” is the first episode of Weediquette, a new docuseries hosted by Andavolu that attempts to sift through the cloud of marijuana smoke and find the most provocative, frustrating, and current stories within the oh-so-zeitgeisty pro-weed movement.
The episode presents anecdotal evidence that high-powered THC oil is shrinking these kids’ tumors alongside gripes over the bureaucratic red tape that is delaying any real scientific proof on the theory.
All the while these kids are getting stoned on what amounts to 10 bong hits of weed per day.
The second episode of Weediquette, “Stoned Vets,” is a brutal look at a community of veterans who are psychologically crippled by PTSD symptoms that access to marijuana could help alleviate. But a study that could potentially lead to legal Veterans Affairs access to pot has been held up for three years in the kind of bureaucratic purgatory that plagues weed studies. In that time, 24,000 veterans have killed themselves.
“I think this is truly a story of our time,” Andavolu tells me about what has become his journalistic beat: pot. Weediquette will also tackle the war on drugs, criminal justice, and even gender equality through the haze of the marijuana lens. “There are few things that are happening now—and I think gay rights is one of them—where it seems the momentum is happening so quickly. And I get the opportunity to chronicle it while it’s happening.”
Weediquette airs as part of the fledgling Viceland channel, the cable network launched last week as an extension of the Vice journalism and entertainment brand, with filmmaker Spike Jonze serving as its co-runner and creative shepherd.
Andavolu sees your eye-roll. Of course Vice is doing a show about weed.
But Andavolu, who has worked for both Vice’s magazine and as an editor for its website before extolling lessons of Weediquette, sees the show as a natural evolution in sincerity for the brand’s notorious edginess. “It’s like we’re all growing up a little bit and our aspirations are growing up, too,” he says.
When he was pitching the series to Jonze, Andavolu recounted shooting a previous video piece for Vice, in which he traveled to Uruguay—the first country to legalize marijuana—to interview its president, José “Pepe” Mujica.
They talked politics and social contracts and “some great, heady stuff,” Andavolu says. At the end of the interview he took out a joint he had in his pocket and asked the President of Uruguay if they could light up together.
“He was like, ‘Go for it!’” Andavolu remembers. “So I lit up! He doesn’t smoke, obviously, but he brought me a whole humidor of Cojibas that he got from Fidel Castro and gave me one. He was like, ‘Let me give you something a little juicier to smoke.’”
Smoking a joint in shotgunning distance from an international leader gives a journalist the kind of thrill that gets a video interview edited and ready to publish in record time. But right before it went live, Andavolu had a stop-cold realization: “Shit, I need to tell my parents about this.”
Proud parents who work as medical doctors in Princeton, Andalovu’s mother and father were beaming about their boy’s journalistic accomplishment: traveling to interview a president. “And I had to be like, ‘Mom, remember when I went to Uruguay? I smoked weed on camera and it’s going to be airing tomorrow.’” She was floored.
The reaction is mirrored in the phone call that begins the first episode of Weediquette. He’s standing in a greenhouse surrounded by marijuana plants, telling his mother that he’s about to start filming the show. “Oh my god,” she sighs. “Don’t smoke it on camera, please. You’ll give a bad example for the children.”
That’s the prism Jonze was interested in, and what Weediquette became. It’s a dialogue between a weed journalist and his parents about what’s acceptable about the drug. Between Andavolu and the audience. Really, between Andavolu and himself.
“What I’m interested in is how we’re figuring this shit out,” he says. “It’s a lot more holistic or wholesome. There’s just a warm feeling to that, rather than a spiky, edgy feeling that you might associate with the Vice brand.”
To be clear, Andavolu likes smoking pot.
He smokes it even when he’s not in the company of world leaders. He first started when he was in college, as so many do, and, when we met to speak last week on the day Weediquette premiered, the last time he had lit up last was the weekend before with a few weed journalist friends in Toronto.
Though he gets high on camera—most effectively when he takes a dose of THC oil that is 1/10 the dose that a child with cancer is taking every day…and gets properly stoned out of his mind—he has actually smoked less than usual since filming the show. He does live in New York, an illegal state, after all.
He knows that people are going to start thinking of him as The Weed Guy, which he has had and continues to have reservations about. “Like, is this what I’m stuck with forever?” And he’s fully aware that, because of it, there will be titillated giggles any time he lights a joint at a party, and the assumption from here on out will be that he walks the earth in a constant state of toked inebriation.
“At first I was maybe a little thin-skinned about it,” he says, adopting a mocked voice of protest: “‘I’m a serious journalist guys!’ But now I’m like, whatever, it is just weed. You can have fun with it.”
He is amused that people seem to be so intensely interested in the story of his first time smoking, as if they’ll find out that Andavolu had some grand realization then that this was his calling in life.
In reality, that grand realization came when he first start reporting a story on kids with cancer using weed as treatment. “I was like, holy shit, there’s a big thing here,” he says. “People are acting in a way that would seem to be inappropriate, and yet there are positive outcomes. What do we think of that morally?”
Truth be told, there is something almost aggressively unsettling about seeing a mother give her child a dose of THC in Weediquette.
There are convincing arguments made by both parents and medical professionals about the effectiveness of the treatments, contrasted with the skepticism required in a conversation about giving pediatric cancer patients weed instead of chemo. Equal parts fascinating and aggravating, too, is the chronicling of all the roadblocks to the study of weed as a viable treatment, despite anecdotal evidence of its efficacy.
And what is it like interacting with kids who are stoned?
“They all seem to me like they are…kids,” Andavolu says. “There’s this idea that when you get stoned you revert to this sense of childlike reverie about the world. Oh, pinwheels and flowers. These kids are already there. My take on it is that the chemo and the radiation really knock that kind of life out of a kid. The weed helps them get back to that state of natural childlike reverie.”
It’s maddening to think that a lingering stereotype about marijuana as a stoner’s indulgence—not to mention its classification as a Schedule 1 drug in the same category as heroin and meth—is delaying practical research that could save these kids’ lives, or prevent suicide in our veterans, or a milieu of other pressing issues.
Maybe, too, all these ideas are insane. That’s the crux of Weediquette.
Andavolu senses what he calls a “half-baked”—heh—inevitability when it comes to legalization. Political winds can change. Cataclysmic events can cause us to think differently. Attributing the thoughts to “the dad in me,” he also worries that “we don’t know what the consequences of an entire generation smoking weed from the age of 25 is going to have.”
Still, the debate has evolved beyond partisanship. “It’s not a left or right issue as much as it is a demographic issue,” he says. “As more people of our generation come of voting age and generations behind us, the idea of weed as a bad thing has pretty much slipped away from them.”
And into the hands of kids at a barbecue.