As Legalization Nears, Serious Coverage of Green Rush Lacking

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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