Cannabis coverage lights up newsrooms in Colorado and Oregon

In 2013, two years before Oregon legalized the recreational use of marijuana, Portland’s Pulitzer Prize-winning alternative weekly newspaper, The Willamette Week, hired its first cannabis columnist.

“We said, you know what, let’s get ahead of this thing,” said Martin Cizmar, the Week’s culture editor.

By the time sales began October 1, 2015, the Week had well-established cannabis sections both in print and online, produced an annual magazine called Potlander and was busy churning out reviews of the city’s dispensaries and an ever-growing list of new psychotropic varieties with names like “White McWidow” and “Sour Chunk.”

In 2015, the Willamette Week launched The Potlander, which claims to be Portland's first complete dispensary guide. (Courtesy of the Willamette Week)
In 2015, the Willamette Week launched The Potlander, which claims to be Portland’s first complete dispensary guide. (Courtesy of the Willamette Week)

It makes sense this would be a high-stakes beat in counterculture’s capital city, where hippies and hipsters converge to support the world’s largest collection of craft breweries, countless coffee shops, organic farms, wine bars, grocery co-ops and highbrow restaurants.

“We saw from the beginning this was something our readers wanted,” Cizmar said. “So we developed a team of writers, not just one dude who is our pot guru. It’s part of our culture here now, and it has become part of the paper the same way booze has always been a part of journalism.”

The Week’s staff even launched an interdepartmental contest the day recreational pot became legal, pitting pot plants in six divisions of the paper in a no-holds-barred ganja “grow off.”

The competition did raise at least a few eyebrows.

“People were thinking this was illicit. Technically we have more plants than is allowed. The law says four plants per household, and we have six,” Cizmar said. “We told readers, ‘don’t make it weird, guys,’ and told them to chill out, that it’s open to interpretation.”

In fact, when it comes to the legality of growing, reviewing and otherwise supporting what is still a federally outlawed product, Cizmar is unflinching.

“This is the people’s republic of Portland,” he said jokingly. “Technically I guess the federal government has some sort of authority over us, but I don’t really feel it, and I don’t think anybody here does. There has never been a point where I’ve been in any way concerned about the legality.”

Cizmar says he hasn’t heard of a single journalist running into trouble with pot coverage or reviews.

But what about journalism outfits with a more conservative readership? Portland’s other Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper, The Oregonian, is the West Coast’s oldest paper and has the largest circulation in the Pacific Northwest, including readers of the distinctly non-Portlandian variety—folks that might not recycle every page, or look kindly at sections celebrating reefer.

In August 2015, Oregonian staff writer Noelle Crombie posted a job announcement to the Oregonian’s website “seeking a freelance critic to review marijuana strains, infused products and highlight consumer trends unique to Oregon’s robust cannabis culture and marketplace.”

Crombie declined to comment for this article, but said the paper had a flood of media attention after the posting. The paper followed a path blazed by The Denver Post, a newspaper of similar size with a similarly diverse readership.

After Colorado voters passed an initiative legalizing recreational use of cannabis in November 2012, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a pair of bills the following May making the state the world’s first fully regulated market for recreational cannabis. The Denver Post decided it would devote an entire section to this multi-faceted subject.

“We’re going to have some fun—with a mix of news, entertainment and culture stories,” Post News Director Kevin Dale wrote in a November 2013 editorial announcing their hiring of a pot editor. “Say what you want about the newspaper industry, but The Post is the most powerful news organization in the region. We know how to cover big stories. And with pot, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

A week later the Post announced it was putting entertainment editor and music critic Ricardo Baca at the helm of the new section, who proudly partook in pot himself, though he said in an interview announcing his hiring that he was “not a full-on stoner.”

The Post’s cannabis section soon became known as The Cannabist, with an edgy online layout independent from the rest of the paper, only mentioning its affiliation with the Post at the bottom of the page. The section is also striking in its juxtaposition of hard news stories and magniloquent reviews, including a “Strain of the Day” for hot new varieties of the drug.

Aleta Labak, digital producer for The Cannabist, came to the section after working for the Post as a copy editor and designer in news, features and sports since 1999.

“We needed to create our own very specific cannabis coverage,” Labak said. “It offers the opportunity to explore the cultural aspects and the normalization versus it being purely policy changes and regulations.”

She said long-time readers’ reactions to it have varied, with some accusing the paper of being anti-marijuana, and others saying the editorial staff is advocating for its use.

“It’s been fun watching history unfold,” Labak said. “I think we started out with a good strong foundation. We cover everything from how laws are changing to reviews and how it’s growing in acceptance. But questions are being raised every day about how it’s being regulated. Right now there is a lot of focus on how marijuana is being grown commercially, the pesticides that are being used, as people try to figure out what’s safe and what’s not.”

That question of safety turns out to be one of their big legal concerns when it comes to reviews.

“The reviewers are trying these products and reporting what the effects are to them, but we’re just careful not to say that any will treat a certain medical condition, because marijuana hasn’t been qualified as such on a federal level,” Labak said. “I don’t think it’s our place to make any recommendation as far as a particular strain having a certain medical impact.”

Regardless of the flowery details of The Cannabist’s reviews, they are geared as much toward the novice as the hardcore stoner, Labak said.

“We’re just trying to help give more information about the various products on the market so that people can be more informed when they go into a shop and are faced with six different strains out there.”

Paul Queneau is a 2002 graduate of University Montana’s School of Journalism and has worked as conservation editor at the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s magazine, Bugle, for the past 12 years. He’s also taught at the J-School as an adjunct professor and edits Communiqué, the J-School’s alumni newsletter. This is his third article for MJR.