Pubdate: Thu, 25 Aug 2016
Source: SF Weekly (CA)
Column: Chem Tales
Copyright: 2016 Village Voice Media
Author: Alex Halperin


My first encounter with the cannabis industry was in November 2014 at 
a marijuana business conference in Las Vegas. At the time, the plant 
was not part of my life, but the story of a federally illegal drug at 
the center of the country's fastest growing industry seemed like an 
incomparably rich subject. Soon, I was making plans to move to Denver 
to cover the business story of the decade.

Almost two years in, I still think legalization is both inherently 
fascinating and historically important. It's been a source of 
puzzlement to me why there aren't more reporters who agree. In its 
implications for American life, legalization is up there with 
marriage equality, Black Lives Matter and perhaps even climate 
change, but it hasn't generated the same kind of national debate.

Major outlets like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and 
NPR do not have dedicated marijuana reporters and, by all 
appearances, have not made a significant investment in the story. 
Many reporters tend to focus more on the ongoing excesses and 
cruelties of prohibition, rather than what the future will look like. 
The colleagues I follow tend to write for millennial-oriented sites 
like Buzzfeed, Vice and Fusion, as well as local and regional 
outlets. Cannabis-specific publications have also stepped up their game.

The relative silence among the largest outlets is partly because the 
cannabis industry has mostly avoided controversy. Thus far, the 
biggest story of the green rush is that it has gone as smoothly as a 
far-reaching social upheaval can. There have been isolated tragedies, 
but as a whole, the introduction of a new legal intoxicant has given 
opponents almost nothing to use as a call to arms. The industry 
deserves much of the credit.

Huge questions remain, and some worrisome trends have surfaced: In 
Colorado, doctors say more newborns are testing positive for THC. But 
as cannabis folks like to say, the sky hasn't fallen. If a stoned 
school bus driver crashed and killed 10 kids, people would start 
asking if legalization is a good idea. But nothing has demanded such 
a reckoning. Reefer Madness-style alarmism has lost its currency over 
the decades. Most reporters don't have major concerns about marijuana 
- -- only something "big" captures their attention.

Legalization is still a divisive issue; more than 40 percent of 
Americans are against it, far more than the 19 percent of Americans 
who believe abortion should be illegal under all circumstances, 
according to respective Gallup polls on legalization (conducted 
October 2015) and abortion (May 2016). But opposition to legalizing 
marijuana shows no sign of galvanizing Americans to vote, organize, 
or donate money in the same way abortion does. The media can't resist 
tiny Westboro Baptist Church's hateful rhetoric and stunts like 
protesting veterans funerals, but the leading anti-legalization 
activist, Kevin Sabet, is just another guy on CNN overselling his 
talking points.

The real reason for a lack of coverage is that the marijuana story is 
poorly suited to the conventions of mainstream journalism, especially 
at a time when Donald Trump rallies seem like the only acceptable 
reason for reporters to travel. Cannabis is not centered in a leading 
media market. Aside from a few celebrities, its leading figures are 
not the kinds of household names who drive clicks - a depressingly 
important consideration at media outlets - and the nationwide gutting 
of regional newspapers hasn't helped.

The lack of serious coverage is disappointing. Americans are at the 
beginning of a long and complex relationship with the marijuana 
industry. When a new state legalizes, the industry arrives, in many 
cases, with a mandate from voters and a far deeper understanding than 
lawmakers of the relevant issues. If given the opportunity, the 
industry will be more than happy to write the rules to maximum 
advantage. Good journalism can help even the playing field.

Legalization is an epic story populated with characters worthy of 
Mark Twain and steeped in the great American themes of race, greed, 
and ambition. Legalization is an issue in virtually every state 
capital, yet these debates are happening independent of each other 
with minimal guidance from Washington, D.C. This is democracy as its 
never been seen before: a government geek's dream that could catalyze 
profound changes in our family and professional lives.

Most election years, at least in theory, are a chance to think and 
learn about how the country is changing. In this year of Trump, 
though, the issues have never been less central to the campaign. Weed 
is one of many topics that has been deprived of the airing it deserves.

Journalists at outlets big and small have done fine work, but there 
aren't enough of us. We need backup.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom