Jake Browne Photo credit Zachary Armstrong
Jake Browne, a cannabis reviewer for the Denver Post, samples a strain at the Medicinal Wellness Center in Denver. Zachary Armstrong

On the evening of Thursday, Dec. 17, Kevin Sabet was working on what he believed would be a bombshell. Sabet, founder of the anti-marijuana legalization organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), had received a tip from someone associated with the Obama administration: State marijuana-use estimates for 2013 and 2014, which had just been released by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), found that Colorado, which launched the country’s first legalized marijuana program in 2014, now led the nation in monthly marijuana use among those 12 to 17 years old. The development was due in part to decreases in marijuana use in other states, although youth marijuana use in Colorado had also increased slightly. The District of Columbia, Oregon and Washington, all of which have also legalized marijuana, came in at fourth, fifth and sixth places in the rankings, respectively.

“What went through our heads was, ‘This is big news,’” says Sabet. “We felt this would absolutely reach a wide audience.” After all, the day before, the National Institutes of Health’s 2015 Monitoring the Future survey, which found that nationwide teen marijuana use had fallen slightly overall, had received widespread coverage. Wouldn’t this report generate major headlines, too?

Sabet rushed out a press release. Then he waited for the onslaught of calls he expected from reporters. Instead, all he heard was crickets.

The lack of media response to the survey numbers leads to the question: After decades of critical reporting on marijuana issues, if they bothered to cover the subject at all, have the media as a whole moved too far in the opposite direction? Are reporters and editors now so high on the topic of cannabis that they’re going too soft on the subject?

A Google News analysis of how the media covered two youth marijuana-use surveys in December indicates SAM may have a reason to feel snubbed. Between Dec. 15 and Jan. 15, there were at least 156 news reports on the Monitoring the Future report, which many have interpreted as being supportive of the marijuana movement (as the Washington Post noted of its data, “The case for marijuana legalization just got stronger”). During the same period, Google News recorded just 17 stories on the SAMHSA report, which, according to Sabet, raises questions about legalization.

The SAMHSA figures weren’t necessarily less newsworthy. As drug-policy expert Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine, notes: “Any state considering whether or how to legalize marijuana needs to pay close attention to this new data on teenagers in Colorado and Washington. It could be nothing, but I don’t think it should be dismissed.”

This informal analysis is far from a perfect comparison, as even SAM staffers suggest. “In fairness, there could be media fatigue on this,” says Jeffrey Zinsmeister, the organization’s executive vice president. “You have two stories on marijuana-use surveys, and the first story gets all the coverage and then people move on to the next thing.” Still, Zinsmeister finds striking the extent of the imbalance, with the survey results bolstering legalization efforts generating nearly 10 times as many headlines as the more unflattering data. “I was surprised to see such a large swing on this,” he says.

Even longtime marijuana advocates say media coverage has shifted. “Back in the ’90s, I would be the only person on the TV show on the issue in favor of reform, and there would be a cop, a prosecutor and a drug specialist, along with the host, who would also be anti-marijuana,” says Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “Now, today, Kevin [Sabet] is the one who has to scramble because the host of the show is neutral or supportive of reform, and I am joined by someone from the marijuana-business community and a member of [the pro-legalization group] Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.”

For years, St. Pierre says, NORML has maintained an internal database of editorial boards nationwide that it considered to be anti-marijuana. In the late 1980s, that list encompassed more than 150 newspapers. Now it’s down to just 30 or 40, and St. Pierre says most of them are owned by a handful of corporate owners opposed to legalization.

It’s not just TV news hosts and newspaper editorial boards that have changed their tune on cannabis. Now there are marijuana-business newspapers and marijuana-culture magazines, full-time marijuana-industry reporters (this writer included) and even an marijuana-editorial division at the Denver Post called the Cannabist staffed with a marijuana editor and cannabis strain reviewers that is the subject of a major documentary.

St. Pierre and others say these changes mean the media is finally accurately reporting on cannabis. “It’s pretty much a golden age for marijuana-law reformers when it comes to the media,” he says.

If the resulting media coverage is generally positive, it could be because, all in all, there’s not much to complain about when it comes to the marijuana movement. “I would contend that if Project SAM is seeing more coverage of the positive aspects of legalization, it’s because the positive aspects of legalization are outweighing the negative,” says Taylor West, deputy director the National Cannabis Industry Association. “There are absolutely things that need to be looked at and fixed, and that is an ongoing process. But all of this ‘sky is falling’ rhetoric that people like them have used for years hasn’t come true.”

Plus, many pro-marijuana activists say if anything, most journalists are still unfairly critical of cannabis. “You are framing your story around the question of whether the media is ‘going too light on the movement,’ which inherently suggests you are going too hard on the movement,” says Mason Tvert, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. “An unbiased story would be about whether the media is covering the issue and the movement accurately. We are still in a situation in which the marijuana-policy-reform movement has to prove everything and constantly defend itself, whereas opponents are generally taken at their word.”

But marijuana opponents aren’t the only ones questioning how the media is covering cannabis these days. “I don’t know if there is an intended bias, but everything coming out of Colorado is sensationalized, no matter what,” says Andrew Matranga, an assistant teaching professor with a focus on cannabis journalism at the University of Denver. “We are still the great science experiment.”

Some of those sensationalized stories might paint too rosy a picture. Many media outlets were quick to report on whether legalized marijuana might have contributed to dropping crime rates in Colorado, while few outlets have wondered whether legalization in the District of Columbia, has had anything to do growing crime problems since then. And this past September, headlines abounded over the fact Colorado appeared to be “Reaping More Tax Revenue From Pot Than From Alcohol,” but many of these articles missed the fact that these figures, which were announced via a Marijuana Policy Project press release, didn’t include statewide sales taxes on all products sold. This meant that, in reality, alcohol still likely produces far more statewide tax dollars than does marijuana.

The situation has left some of those with a stake in the game fuming. “Unfortunately, the type of one-sided, advocacy-driven reporting we used to see relegated to the pages of High Times is now commonplace in the mainstream media,” says a former top drug-policy official, who asked to remain anonymous. “That’s a real disservice for the millions of Americans who are poised to live each day with the public-health consequences of this experiment.”

There are several factors that could lead to skewed marijuana coverage in favor of legalization. For starters, the fact that there are relatively few major anti-legalization advocates making noise these days, compared with a lengthy parade of well-funded marijuana activist organizations, trade groups, lobbying firms and public-relations outfits means it’s easier for one side to get its message out to news outlets than for the other. “I don’t think either reporters or news outlets are consciously playing on one team or the other the way they were 30 years ago,” says drug-policy expert Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute of Urban Management. “But I think the anti-legalization forces have not represented themselves well, and a bunch of pro-legalization slogans are now accepted as conventional wisdom.”

Ricardo Baca credit Andy Colwell, The Cannabist
Ricardo Baca is editor of the Denver Post’s Cannabist section. Andy Colwell/The Cannabist

Then there is the impact of all those reading and disseminating the resulting news coverage. Online, cannabis activists have become a loud and powerful bunch, launching advocacy blogs, sharing articles on Reddit and Twitter that support their case and lambasting those that don’t. This means positive cannabis coverage can equal big social media hits and resulting clicks, while negative stories can face a backlash — and the sheer scale of the pro-marijuana community’s passion can be intimidating. When the New York Times’ David Brooks penned a column criticizing legalization efforts in early 2014, he was besieged by online ridicule, derision that was echoed by some of his colleagues in the media. He hasn’t touched the subject since.

Marijuana advertising could also be an issue. At a time when ad revenue is shrinking and classified sections have been decimated, the nascent marijuana industry has proven to be a welcome new source of advertising dollars, especially for free alternative-weekly newspapers such as Seattle Weekly and Denver’s Westword (where, in the interest of full disclosure, this reporter used to work). While publications such as these maintain strict firewalls between the advertising and editorial sides, there’s a risk that some outlets could be seen as becoming so financially intertwined with the marijuana industry that their objectivity could threatened, such as how ESPN’s dependence on NFL contracts has led some to suggest the organization can no longer accurately cover football. Similarly, journalism jobs, including this reporter’s, have been created to cover the burgeoning marijuana business. If the data support it, could these journalists be expected to conclude that legalization has been a failure, if that means they would also be writing the obituaries for their own jobs?

But even journalists whose positions aren’t dependent on the marijuana experiment moving forward could have a bias in favor of cannabis. Most news outlets these days are owned or run by those in the baby boomer generation, half of whom have tried marijuana, compared with just 22 percent of the generation before them. Thanks to the socioeconomic statuses of those people, most of these experiences with marijuana were likely safe, controlled and fun. “It’s hard not to be colored by one’s own experiences,” says Humphreys at Stanford, alluding to somebody who might contend, “‘I smoked pot and now I am on the editorial board of the New York Times.’”

But the experiences of what Humphreys calls this “marijuana-analyst class” might be different than those in the “marijuana-user class,” those who haven’t graduated college and constitute 5/6ths of the marijuana market. These people, largely from comparatively poor neighborhoods and having moderate incomes, aren’t going to marijuana food-pairing parties or investing in hot cannabis startups. Instead, they’re the ones most likely to get arrested for marijuana possession, the ones whose jobs and education prospects could be most at risk of getting derailed because of excessive marijuana use. Are these people’s stories going to be covered, too?

Some skewed marijuana coverage might have less to do with newsroom bias and more about how news operations are allocating resources to the issue. Stick “marijuana” in a headline these days and it’s bound to get hits. So then why bother devoting precious manpower over days or weeks to investigating whether potency labels on marijuana edibles are accurate or tracking down the dealings of shady cannabis penny stocks when a report on a marijuana-infused film screening — and its accompanying puntastic headline — will attract just as much attention?

If the media are going too easy on marijuana, it’s not just anti-cannabis advocates such as Kevin Sabet who stand to lose. It’s also those who are interested in developing and investing in a legal marijuana industry, because journalistic scrutiny is a key tool in figuring out which parts of the country’s legalized marijuana test run are working and which need parts to be retooled. “What’s happening in Colorado is an experiment,” says Sam Kamin, a professor of marijuana law and policy at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law. “The press needs to remember that. The story of marijuana legalization is still being written. If the story that comes out is, ‘Colorado has done it,’ that neglects the choices that are still being made.’”

But there are signs that marijuana coverage, like the cannabis scene itself, is evolving. If cannabis continues to be a news draw, it could lead to ever-more skillful and in-depth journalism on the subject. It’s a promising sign that journalism professors such as Matranga are teaching classes on marijuana journalism and objective news startups such as Cannabis Wire are taking root. Plus, as medical-marijuana programs develop in cities such as New York and Chicago, the ample media operations in these towns will likely pay close attention to how these ventures are progressing in their midst.

It’s also worth noting that the Cannabist, which may be best known for its strain reviews and colorful question-and-answer interviews, has increasingly broken hard-hitting investigative stories on the industry, including an ongoing series on pesticide residues on marijuana products and an analysis of Denver records that showed marijuana businesses were largely concentrated in lower-income neighborhoods. And Ricardo Baca, editor of the Cannabist, wrote an in-depth follow-up on the SAMHSA report promoted by SAM in December, concluding, after running the numbers past experts, that changes in youth marijuana use in Colorado aren’t statistically relevant enough to be of major concern.

Baca knows asking tough questions about marijuana won’t win him many fans in the pro-cannabis community, but he’s not worried about that. “There was this expectation that I should be on the industry’s side because we have all these fun cultural stories and Q&As and hired pot critics, but we’ve also always ran serious news stories that are critical of both sides,” he says. “And now we’re getting to the place where we have some data and perspective on what’s happening, so now we can dive in and ask, ‘What do these things show about what two years of legal marijuana sales look like?’”

Plus, he figures getting people mad is part of his job. As he puts it, “If you have Mason Tvert on one side and Kevin Sabet on the other side and they both feel like you’re being unfair, you’re probably doing something right.”