12/07/2011 05:21 pm ET Updated Feb 06, 2012

Weed Wars: Is the Cannabiz Ready for Its Close-Up?

As a former pot grower, I took a particular interest in the premier of Discovery's new reality show, Weed Wars last week. As is typical of the pot business, when it comes to the main players, it's a sausage fest.

There's no central female character, except there is: The plants themselves, the ones that produce seedless and valuable sinsemilla are all female. Despite what you see, Harborside is the house the Girls built. The gents of Weed Wars serve the Girls' evolution and dispersion, and in return their family business grossed $21 million in sales last year. That's some good medicine in this economy.

Because the medical marijuana trade in California is obligated to be non-profit, all excess money made at Harborside goes into patient services and charitable donations, which makes it seem less like criminal enterprise and more like a model of sustainable, community-level capitalism. Putting this into greater perspective is Jon, one of the growers featured on the show, who worked for a mortgage company before he tried his hand at the ganja trade, "My real job, " he says, "was attempting to scam people out of their life savings to get them into homes they couldn't afford."

Unlike the industry that exploited that avenue for accumulating wealth, the Cannabusiness is not in need of a bailout. It's one of the few growth sectors in a still-struggling economy. Its growth was so explosive in Los Angeles, that the city council stepped in to shut down dispensaries as numbers mushroomed into the high hundreds.

Steve DeAngelo, Harborside's CEO, who looks a bit like Willie Nelson in a Don Draper costume: suit, hat and long gray braids, says, "I was one of these lucky people who finds out at a young age what it is that's important to them." He's both impish and sincere when he says, "I'm an agent of change, working to bring the truth about the cannabis plant to the rest of the world." Like any good protagonist, I'm rooting for him to win, but what that might look like is up for grabs. Does a victory for Steve mean legalization across the board? It's hard to imagine Harborside holding up to that, which is probably why his brother Andrew, a former theater guy and current general manager, said on Bill O'Reilly said that he doesn't support the recreational legalization of cannabis. The premiere episode of Weed Wars does nothing if not point up the very gray area between medical and recreational that some patients occupy.

Steve explains: "Whether or not they realize it, most regular cannabis users are using cannabis for the purpose of enhancing their wellness. They may be using it to spark their creativity or their libido or to get a longer night's sleep. All of those things are legitimate wellness uses." I agree. My doctor's recommendation is not for any of those things, but I've used the pot purchased via that recommendation for all of the above and more.

The medicinal/recreational question is interesting because it raises the question of how we define medicine. I once got a doctor's recommendation at HempCon for $50 and a record-free claim of PMS. Is that gaming the system? Or is that providing my uninsured self some relief? Should insomnia be a qualifying condition? Anxiety? How about an acute giggle deficit? There's a reason for the saying "laughter is the best medicine" and marijuana is indisputably a laugh-bringer. The very real danger of playing this semantic game is, of course, the potential loss of hard-won ground for patients with debilitating diseases.

Moderate recreational use shouldn't be seen as a denigration of the medical marijuana system -- nor should the millions of dollars that Harborside brings to the City of Oakland. The making of money and the provision of medicine are not mutually exclusive. They can both contribute to the well-being of the patients, the growers and the communities in which they are neighbors. Or they can cross the Rubicon and become corrupt. I look forward to this Thursday's new episode of Weed Wars to watch which way the DeAngelo's are headed.