Q&A: Baca rolling with the 'Rolling Papers' as new film is released

The video trailer for the new documentary ‘Rolling Papers,’ which will premiere at the Sie Film Center in Denver starting Thursday, and at the Boulder Theatre on Friday.

Once upon a time, I was The Denver Post’s Theatre Critic, and Ricardo Baca was its Pop Music Critic. I sat next to him every day, separated only by bins stacked 6-feet high filled with CDs that had been mailed for his critical consideration. Baca was a singular, laid-back personality who took pride in his flip-flops, cornhole and never returning voice mails that were left for him on his work line.

Ricardo Baca Rolling Papers QuoteBut lurking under Baca’s bohemian likability was a driven, entrepreneurial journalist in an Avett Brothers T-Shirt. In addition to regularly breaking news on the music beat and engendering a large readership with his clever and cogent concert observations, Baca was tirelessly innovative. He took The Denver Post Undergound Music Showcase (The UMS) from an annual one-night concert highlighting four local bands and turned it into a four-day takeover of the Baker neighborhood featuring more than 350 bands playing in more than 20 venues ranging from churches to architectural offices to carpet stores. He later launched The Denver Post’s Reverb music website, which generates news, reviews and photographs from hundreds of music shows throughout the year.

Baca, most know by now, was named The Denver Post’s Marijuana Editor in advance of Colorado becoming the first state to legalize sales of recreational marijuana. Some assumed Baca, who once could be found at seemingly every party or concert that was happening anywhere in Denver, was the perfect choice for this landmark assignment – he is the first Marijuana Editor at any daily newspaper in the world. They might be surprised to learn that Baca doesn’t smoke the stuff (don’t tell!) and was a proud Westminster High School theatre greek who didn’t even drink until college. He remains an intensely private person with an intensely public veneer.

As soon as The Post announced the marijuana vacancy, it was the punchline of a Saturday Night Live joke. But since being named to the post, Baca has appeared on everything from The Colbert Report (“Live from Bongistan!”) to The View to NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me. The jokes came easy: “Are you high right now?” was ubiquitous.

There was such intense interest in this journalistic, political and social phenomenon that a local film crew headed by Director Mitch Dickman decided to document Baca’s first year on the marijuana beat. The cleverly titled result is Rolling Papers, which has been well-received by audiences and critics at festivals around North America and this week is being released on-demand and in theatres in Denver, Boulder and around the country.

The portal for The Denver Post’s marijuana coverage is a web site called The Cannabist. What everyone in the journalism field was waiting to see was whether the journalism Baca oversaw there with a team of Denver Post reporters, photographers, videographers and an offbeat crew of freelance contributors was real journalism, or merely a tacit endorsement of the marijuana lifestyle. The answer to that, like most art, lies in the eye of the beholder. It is a risky venture for The Post – many readers were offended by the attention given to a substance that remains federally illegal.

What is not subjective is the legitimacy of marijuana as a beat at The Denver Post. There is not an existing beat, from politics to sports to entertainment to food to police to schools and more – that has not in some way been touched by the legalization of marijuana. The numbers are astonishing, and they speak for themselves: In 2014 and ’15, marijuana sales totaled $1.6 billion in Colorado, generating $211 million in sales taxes.

And in its first year in existence, The Cannabist was the runnerup for a Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Reporting. Now, there is no question that pot journalism is a real thing. And there are lessons to be gleaned from that for what is commonly perceived to be a dying newspaper industry. But may not have to be.

Ricardo Baca Rolling Papers
Ricardo Baca is not only the focus of a new documentary. He is appearing on billboards and bus ads for his alma mater, Metropolitan State University. 

Here is our brief Q&A with Ricardo Baca, Denver Post Marijuana Editor, about his job and his new film, Rolling Papers

John Moore: So, The Cannabist: Is this kind of niche journalism a smart survival strategy for traditional media companies, or is it the future of journalism itself?

Jake Browne Rolling PapersRicardo Baca: At the very least, it is a smart survival strategy. I think The Denver Post has discovered this is a legitimate way to bring in new revenue while also shining a spotlight on an important issue that is particular to their region and their readership. So it makes perfect sense for The Denver Post to say, “We’re going to start a website that is all about cannabis.”

John Moore: What is one piece of journalism you are most proud of producing since The Cannabist debuted in December 2013?

Ricardo Baca: I would have to say John Ingold’s series on CBD in Colorado, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Reporting. Desperate Journey was a three-part series on how Colorado’s marijuana laws have drawn hundreds of refugee families to the state seeking medical help for their children. They came here to try CBD, an oil extract of marijuana. John Ingold, photographer Joe Amon and videographer Lindsay Pierce followed a mother who uprooted her family from North Carolina and moved them to Colorado Springs with hopes of stopping her 12-year-old son’s debilitating seizures. Those three did an amazing job. And runnerup for the Pulitzer Prize? I don’t think you can do better than that. 

John Moore: They could have won.

Ricardo Baca: Well, that.

John Moore: What was it like for you to be the subject of a documentary crew following you around for a year, and now you have in many ways become the face of marijuana journalism in the United States?

Ricardo Baca: I felt very uncomfortable about it. Nobody wants to see a movie about me. But when you add (marijuana strain reviewer) Jake Browne and (Denver Post reporters) John Ingold and Eric Gorski into the mix, that makes for a compelling portrait. This is a real ensemble piece. (Jake Browne is photographed above right.)

John Moore: What do you think Rolling Papers accomplishes as a film?

Ricardo Baca: On the one hand, future generations will be able to look back and see it as a time capsule, and they will be able to see how big a deal this issue really was in every aspect of life in Colorado. Already, here in 2016, marijuana is not the touchstone issue that it was back in 2013. We have realized that marijuana is not the scourge it was made out to be. I also think the movie is a really interesting look at two struggling industries trying to find their way at the same time in history. Newspapers are trying to find their relevance in a modern information age. And even though sales of marijuana are booming, the legal weed industry struggled in its early days trying to meet regulations imposed by the state and individual cities. It struggled with how to responsibly dose edible products. And it struggled to find the best way to extract THC for concentrates. And in many ways, it continues to struggle because this is essentially a brand-new industry.

Rolling Papers: In theatres and on demand:
SIE FILM CENTER:
Special sneak preview 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 18, followed by Q&A
Opening 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 19th followed by Q&A
7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 20, followed by Q&A
Ticket information

BOULDER THEATRE:
Special preview 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 19, followed by Q&A
Ticket information

ON DEMAND:

Beginning Friday, Feb. 19 via:

  • Amazon Video
  • AT&T U-Verse
  • BestBuy/CinemaNow
  • Blockbuster
  • Comcast XFINITY
  • Cox
  • DIRECTV CINEMA
  • Dish Network
  • Google Play 
  • Hoopla
  • iTunes
  • M-GO
  • Microsoft Movies & TV
  • Sony PlayStation Network
  • Time Warner Cable
  • Verizon Fios
  • VUDU

CREDITS:
Director: Mitch Dickman
Cinematographer: Zachary Armstrong
Producer: Mitch Dickman, Britta Erickson, Allison Greenberg-Millice, Daniel Junge, Karl Kister and Katie Shapiro
U.S. Distributor: Alchemy

Ricardo Baca Rolling Papers
Ricardo Baca takes a phone call at The Denver Post during filming of “Rolling Papers” last year.

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