Cannabis Reporting is Straight Bammer

High drama between local marijuana mogul Berner and an influential industry Instagram is just a symptom of the disease.

“The Blacklist is a well-known extortionist page.”

That’s what Berner — the Bay Area rapper and cannabis mogul — told me during a Sept. 22 phone interview. He was speaking about an anonymously run Instagram and website, called The Blacklist, which publishes often unverified news about the cannabis industry. 

“It’s run by a woman who likes to try to get donations and get money from people,” Berner — real name Gilbert Milam Jr. — went on. 

The Blacklist responded via email saying that there was no evidence to support these claims and called them “libelous.”

Berner, of Cookies and Santa Cruz Shredders fame, had joined the call to talk about his latest product launch for VIBES rolling papers — specifically, a new line of giant-sized rolling papers meant to hold as much as three grams of bud at a time. With him on the call was a PR agent, Georgia Mack. When asked whether The Blacklist had ever tried to extort him, Berner barely got a word in before Mack cut him off. “I just wanted to jump in, sorry,” she said. “I think we were supposed to focus on VIBES.” 

Knowing that we’d blocked out 30 minutes for the chat, and seeing as we’d only used 18 at the time of Berner’s very pointed assertion about a prominent cannabis industry platform, it was hard for me to imagine discussing j-papers for another 12 minutes.

Publicists don’t wait idly on mute during phone calls like these for no reason, however, and try as I might to extract any more of Berner’s thoughts on The Blacklist, I was headed off at every attempt.

This is, unfortunately, the status quo for cannabis journalism. Though recreational weed is now legal in 19 states, Guam, and the District of Columbia, and is a multi-billion dollar industry employing approximately 321,000 Americans, finding reliable information remains challenging.

The bulk of professional cannabis reporting never rises above puffy product reviews and profiles, coverage of earnings statements, and news of celebrity endorsements.

Unverified, vigilante journalism fills the gap. 

CANNA-SPIRATORIAL

For decades, the cannabis community has circulated conspiracy theories — and not just because weed has a way of making novice smokers paranoid. Given the dearth of federally recognized scientific studies on the plant, reporters may struggle to find sources that the wider public will readily perceive as trustworthy. There is no Dr. Anthony Fauci of cannabis and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms does not weigh in on matters of marijuana. To this day, while many mainstream media outlets treat cannabis more fairly, plenty still lean into the sensational while avoiding serious or nuanced discussions. 

It’s not uncommon for the media to miss the entire point of an industry story. As recently as 2019, dozens of news outlets failed to clarify that a mysterious vaping illness was caused by non-cannabinoid “fillers” found only on the black market in California. Busts of illegal dispensaries and manufacturing facilities are fodder for the nightly local news — though they aren’t often put in a broader context with the state policies that make it so hard to break into the legal market in the first place.

As a former freelance cannabis journalist, I have personally witnessed the way standard guidelines of journalistic ethics are stretched to the extreme. PR agents often expect to play a role in the editing process, and some outlets give contributors free reign to publish directly to the web without editing or fact-checking. Thinly-veiled bribes, including free products, event invitations, or even straight cash, are commonplace. 

In the absence of reliable media, stoners turn to unconventional sources. In the pre-internet days, high-minded (and false) theories about whether ash that burned black signaled the presence of pesticide-contaminated weed, or that “420” was the police code for drug busts, were transmitted slowly, by word of mouth. In the era of Web 1.0, reputable crowdsourced content like the website Erowid.org — first established in the Bay Area in the mid ’90s — helped correct the record. But with the advent of social media, and with informal research cluttering cannabis Instagram feeds, it can be difficult to pick through all the seeds and stems of schwaggy rumors and surface the heady nuggs of truth.

Many unverified Instagram pages earn a more devoted following within the industry than sites like Erowid or institutional sources like Politico or the Times — both of which do their best to cover the industry but often are dismissed as representatives of “the man.” Some of these pages publish surprisingly rigorous work, while others alternate between libel and questioning vaccine science. 

UNDER THE INFLUENCER

One of the best known outlets — and, notably, one with a clear anti-vax streak — is The Blacklist, the organization Berner initially seemed so eager to throw under the magic bus. Their most popular content revolves around exposing contaminated cannabis in the legal market and reporting on robberies and police raids. The founders and editors try to stay anonymous, though their identities can be found with a quick Google search. Their mission, according to their website, is “education through discussion… by promoting only clean medicine, good business practices and transparency in the industry.”

It sounds nice, but, unfortunately, it shares more in common with euphemistic Q-Anon refrains like, “Do your own research.” The content one finds on The Blacklist is often about as scientifically verifiable as the anecdotes shared by guests on The Joe Rogan Experience.

But The Blacklist’s harshest critics accuse them of more than just spouting fake news. Instagram pages like @thegreedrush and several farmers and other journalists who spoke on background with the Weekly have accused the individuals behind the account of threatening some of the industry’s biggest players with negative coverage if they refuse to pay up, or charging a fee to slam their competitors.

In the hours after my talk with Berner, I received multiple phone calls from Mack. In one, only 30 minutes after the first call ended, she offered what sounded like a bribe, then a threat, urging me to omit Berner from any coverage about The Blacklist.

“If we need to bring in legal, we’ll bring in legal,” she said. Later, she added: “If there’s something else we can do for you that would be helpful, instead of doing this article or something, I would understand.” 

In the days since, Mack has requested to review this article before publication and to review the audio tape before moving forward. Both requests were denied per SF Weekly’s ethical reporting policies. 

It’s unclear precisely why Berner and his PR team are worried about The Blacklist, an unverified Instagram and website with no institutional backing. In fact, as of Sept. 27, The Blacklist started posting positive content about one of Berner’s brands. The irony is that many followers of The Blacklist distrust conventional media, and prefer to get their information from digital vigilantes because they suspect conventional media outlets are easily manipulated by bribes, threats, censorship, and other types of coercion.

Though it’s easy to call out The Blacklist, they are but one symptom of a larger problem. Until the journalism industry devotes the resources to covering cannabis like they do the alcohol or tobacco industries, cannabis consumers will have nowhere else to go for their cannabis news than outlets like The Blacklist — or anti-vax cannabis influencers like Bess Byers.

“Part of the reason why I freelance so much for entities out of the city is because there’s no real staff position for a cannabis reporter in the city — and this is the second biggest city in the largest cannabis market in the world,” says San Diego-based freelance writer Jackie Bryant. 

Some reporters, like Bryant, get opportunities to rigorously report — for example, an investigative piece she published in Voice of San Diego about licensed dispensaries tipping off authorities to their unlicensed counterparts. SF Weekly has published plenty of rigorously reported and fact-checked stories, too: Take Joe Kukura’s coverage of High Times’ predatory business practices in the City, or Zack Ruskin’s report on the touchy communications between local pot shops and the San Francisco Police Department. 

But this is SF Weekly’s last issue for the time being. With us goes one of the last outlets in San Francisco that devoted significant resources to cannabis — even if it was on a freelance basis. Now, it’s up to freelancers who can land a pitch in local newspapers, or those who can twist a lifestyle pitch into something of more import for the City’s various glossy mags, to be the Bay Area’s cannabis watchdogs. 

In other words, it’s mostly on the community at large to parse through the misinformation. In the age of social media, the odds of that are about as slim as pinner.

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