In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize "recreational" marijuana. As stoners everywhere rejoiced, the Denver Post realized that they had a whole new legal industry to cover, and that Denver would be ground zero. So they did what any respectable news outlet would do in the same circumstances: they created the position of "marijuana editor," the first of its kind among mainstream daily newspapers.
In looking for someone to take the position, they chose Ricardo Baca, a longtime music critic and entertainment editor at the paper who briefly became famous for the novelty of his new job, appearing on The Colbert Report and The View (which helped him land a couple columns from Whoopi Goldberg). He's now in charge of both the Denver Post's print marijuana coverage as well as The Cannabist, a website devoted to cannabis culture and news.
We caught up with Baca at the Toronto Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, where Rolling Papers, a film about his first year on the brand new job, made its international premiere. Graciously, he answered some questions about working with Whoopi Goldberg, what it takes to be an authoritative "pot critic," and whether or not the rest of the United States will follow Colorado's lead and fully legalize marijuana.
VICE: So you worked for the Denver Post prior to the legalization of marijuana as a music critic and entertainment editor. What were the conversations like with your bosses when it was decided that you would become the marijuana editor?
Ricardo Baca: I guess that first conversation was, "How do we present this to the public?" They felt like they wanted just to do a very basic Q and A that was straightforward with the public about what it was that we wanted to do and who I was and what my experience with weed was. That was one of the questions we knew I had to answer outright before they even announced it and put it out to the world.
I just answered pretty straightforwardly and they were like, "Do we want to be that explicit about your own history and your own use?" And I just told them we had to be. The one thing I knew about stoners from my friends who are stoners and activists on both sides of the issue is that you can't talk around this issue at all. You just have to approach it very directly. I felt it was necessary that we be very direct and upfront with people about my own history with marijuana, which wasn't all that expansive, but it is something that I do choose to use recreationally on occasion.
What was your personal experience with marijuana?
I hadn't used it a lot. I've never really smoked pot all that successfully. My lungs hate it. I'd certainly enjoyed edibles from time to time. It kind of became a rafting tradition, for example. We liked to raft, we did multi-day trips on the Colorado River and maybe have a nibble of an edible once you take out for the night and you're making your fire and you're setting up your tent and everything.
In the movie, your boss jokes that he knew you were the right guy to take on this project because you used to write about Denver's music scene, so you "obviously" had experience with marijuana. Is that really how you got the job?
The first thing I told them was, "You know I'm not the biggest stoner in the newsroom, right?" And they said, "Yes, we do know that, and that's part of the reason why we're picking you for this job." They also said it kind of came down to that I had a long history at the newspaper of writing and editing, and I also was one of the random people within the newspaper who kept going out and starting new things.
I wanted a music blog as soon as that became a thing and they were like, "OK, start it. Here's your domain," and the next thing I had 40 or 50 freelancers for a site called Reverb. And before that, I started a music festival called the UMS, the Underground Music Showcase. They didn't ever say, "Oh, we want a music festival." It just happened, and that's why they told me I was hired. Because it involved starting something completely new. I mean, completely new, not just something that we'd never done before but, really, something that no newspaper had ever done, and they thought that I could do it.
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When you first became the Marijuana Editor, you ended up on The Colbert Report and The View, what was it like to become the face of this new venture in the national media?
By the time they hired me and they posted the job posting, it went viral on Twitter and it went on Saturday Night Live, Weekend Update, and then it was on Jay Leno. I was like, "Are you cool with me just taking this and running with this? This is going to bring readers to a site that doesn't exist right now. And we need them. We want them looking out for this." And it ended up being huge and invaluable, and it was fun. I definitely had no problem doing it. I got freelancers out of it. Brittany [Driver] saw me on Colbert and that's how we got our parenting writer. Whoopi [Goldberg], I met her on The View and she's written a couple columns for the site and I hope she'll write a couple more.
What was it like to edit Whoopi Goldberg?
At first it was pretty damn weird, but she's great and she's passionate. She's really sensible. You know, she's very pro-medical marijuana. She's not all that passionate about recreational. I have a lot of respect for her.
During the film you actually had to let one of your pot critics go, saying that you were looking for something different. But what are you actually looking for in a pot critic?
Ultimately, I want it to be a good read. I want it to be entertaining. I also need it to be authoritative. I need that person to be an absolute badass in that space. You can read [Ry Pritchard's] Pure Power Plant review, but if you read one of those, you read Ry talking his way through the strain analysis and how he doesn't believe the store [when they say] that it is that strain. [Pritchard] has lots of marijuana industry experience, like a zillion contacts and just insanely educated. When Rolling Stone did this really impressive take out on Colorado marijuana two or three years ago, they called Ry "the biggest weed nerd in town."
I mean, when I visit my friends in New York City, I meet their bike messenger friends and it's hilarious, buying weed out of a backpack, or edibles out of a fishing kit that's on the back of some dude's scooter. It's understandable if that guy has no idea what it is that he's selling. He's going to call it Bubble Gum. He's going to call it OG Kush, but he has no idea. In Colorado, unfortunately, some of the shops—regulated, licensed shops—are lying to their customers. So, I want that in a pot critic, somebody who's such an expert and so experienced in this field that they can call those people out, and at the same time they can congratulate people when they have a really nice genotype or phenotype. I want those people who are the experts because I am not that expert when it comes to smoking flower, because I don't!
And yet your reporters are trained journalists, not just weed enthusiasts?
John Ingold is a straightforward news writer. He was an intern at the Post years ago and he was actually hired by the Post to write directly out of college, which almost never happens. He's very serious and he does a great job with covering marijuana and he's our lead writer on the James Holmes-Aurora theater shooting trial. Eric Gorsky has great experience in multiple fields as an investigative journalist. He worked for us. He covered religion. He went to AP, he worked at a number of desks there. He came back to the Post, ended up covering marijuana when I came over to the beat.
You've mentioned how little you knew, or how little Colorado knew, about a regulated marijuana industry when this project began in 2014. Is there anything that really surprises you, looking back through this documentary, about how everything has changed and evolved?
I think one of the last things I say in the documentary is just like how great it felt at the end of the year to be able to talk authoritatively and confidently on the subject. Of course I'm not going to write about it under a news banner, but certain things—like the way Colorado measures impairment for illegal driving for marijuana because it stays in your system longer than alcohol, and right now they measure it via a blood test to determine if you have five nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood—it's an inaccurate and inexact way of determining marijuana inebriation and intoxication.
I'm glad that the state has donated to research to create different methods of determining how fucked up you are. Go back and find the William Breathes story in [the Denver] Westword from three or four years ago. He came home from work, got high at 6 PM-ish, had dinner, hung with his lady, went to bed, woke up, had breakfast, went to work, and at his lunch hour went to the doctor and got blood drawn and they tested it for THC and he was three times the legal limit. That was 16 or 18 hours after originally smoking, and that's not OK. He knows that he's not still intoxicated that morning when he drove to work in the same way that I would know that I'm not intoxicated that morning if I had a piece of an edible on a Friday night and went to get milk for our coffee on Saturday morning. I'm not still fucked up, and yet I would test above that most likely via the state's standards. So I think the gift to me that came with experience is actually being able to talk more about my own personal feelings about this.
And now that it's been around for a year, has the Nancy Grace-type hysteria about marijuana legalization died down?
Yeah, I think that most extreme brand of hysteria about, at least about crime, and maybe a few other things, has died down, because it was flat out proven wrong. Nancy Grace, you'll notice, has not talked about the crime wave that she predicted because it simply never happened. At the same time you have very passionate and in some circumstances educated anti-marijuana activists who don't want to see this, who absolutely disagree with this, and think that this is bad for the kids, the community, the image, and they're not relenting.
At one point in the film, one of your writers interviews a "traditional" pot dealer, who still sells weed the old-fashioned way. Why does that market still exist in a state where marijuana is legal?
Ultimately, it's price and convenience. You can still get a gram on the black market for super cheap in Colorado. And also, there's no time restrictions. Sales in rec shops in the city and County of Denver stop at 7 PM. Medical weed is already more expensive than black market weed, plus recreational weed carries with it a hefty tax, so when you think about the convenience and those taxes, it's why there still are black market dealers. At the same time, you have marijuana activists talking, and I think somewhat rightly so, about how there was more than $699 million sold in recreational and medicinal shops last year in Colorado alone, and Colorado is far from a massive state. That's basically $700 million that wasn't spent on the black market.
You use the word "marijuana" in your coverage, which has been rejected by pro-legalization activists who prefer the term "cannabis" for a variety of reasons. Is that the kind of the difference between writing about weed for a mainstream paper like the Denver Post rather than a specialty magazine like High Times?
High Times [has] been around for 41 years. It's pretty impressive. But at the same time, they are activism first. I met my colleague there, the editor-in-chief, Chris Simunek, and we just did this co-interview on video. It was a lot of fun, and that was one of the things that came up immediately.
He's just like, "You have to understand, what we're doing is journalism, but it's activism first. We were started by a drug smuggler named Tom Forcade 41 years ago and it's important to us carrying on his legacy that we pursue legalization as an immediate entity." And [the Denver Post] is the exact opposite. We're not activists. We have people writing for us occasionally with their opinion about how pot should be legalized and how they like to see that happen. And we have people writing for us occasionally with their opinion about how they feel pot shouldn't be legalized and how we're not ready for that for a multitude of reasons.
So we try and balance the conversation out that way, but certainly in our news reporting, it's not activism generated, it's purely what is news, and many times that's not popular with our readership. A lot of people came out and were frustrated that we were using the term and the word "marijuana." A lot of people preferred it to be "cannabis" and that's OK. I think it's kind of activist speak, and I understand the history and we took a couple weeks and explored that and ultimately came to the conclusion that we feel comfortable using the word marijuana because Colorado's entire law is written using the word "marijuana," and ultimately it's lost a lot of its harshness and a lot of—I don't know whether you want to call them racist—undertones or whatever, from the decades past.
In the film, one dispensary owner gets his bank account cancelled because of federal laws, which still contradict state laws in a lot of places. What are the consequences of that?
In the US, the banks are regulated by the FDIC, which is a federal institution and that's the single biggest place where you notice that federal-state conflict. These businesses are operating in cash, and it's scary. Not only is it massively inconvenient for them, but an entire cottage industry of cannabis security companies has popped up and is actually flourishing because these businesses need to bring their monthly sales tax to the state of Colorado, and it's usually cash in armored vehicles with a dude with a machine gun inside. It's heavily protected. It's not always that way. Sometimes these people are driving a hundred thousand dollars to their safe place or to their hiding place or to their mom's basement in the Subaru Outback.
In the pilot episode of CNN's High Profits, you'll see that couple who runs the Breckenridge Cannabis Club in the mountains 80 minutes outside of Denver, driving a hundred thousand dollars in cash over a mountain pass. It's like, that should be a check, and the state knows that.
Some banks do still work with these businesses, but I still hear stories at least two or three times a month where people are like, "Yeah, I just lost my bank account, we're kind of screwed. We're scrambling." And, "I hear these guys have a guy that we might be able to talk to," or flat out, "We don't have a bank. We're a business making millions of dollars every year and we don't have a bank at all, and it's scary." Andrew Freedman, who works directly for Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, talks about how afraid he is of some potentially violent act coming out of this conundrum, because crooks and criminals are absolutely aware that these businesses are transporting high volumes of cash, sometimes without that cannabis security company. That's the last thing they want happening is some gruesome, bloody murder scene on a highway, just for a couple hundred grand.
Do you think it will be legalized federally? Do you feel like it's inevitable, or do you think that's a little while off?
There was a major pollster, I think it was Quinnipiac, who asked that exact question to the public, and the majority of Americans absolutely think that federal legalization is inevitable, [but] there's so many steps in the process. I don't know that in my lifetime I'll ever see a US that is fully legal, as in every state and every county. Because in the modern US now you still have dry counties where you can't buy alcohol throughout Texas and the American South.
A lot of these institutions surrounding marijuana, including research, are completely hamstrung because right now it's considered a Schedule 1 substance that has no medical value, and why would the federal government allow them to study this drug for its medical efficacy when it has "no medical value"? Even though 23 states and Washington, DC and other countries say that it does have some medical value. I do believe we're going to see some sort of rescheduling in the next few years. I think that rescheduling of pot on the substance list will be substantial; that will be huge news. Ultimately that needs to happen before anything else happens. So I think that's what we're waiting for.
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