The Denver Post is a storied institution, published since 1892, with a lengthy, multi-chaptered ethics policy posted on its website—perhaps the surest sign of old fashioned print-media ombudsmanship. Those rules (and the ritualized gravity that comes with them) trickle all the way down to Jake Browne's role as the newspaper's first professional marijuana critic. He was hired in 2014, shortly after legalization hit Colorado, to appraise the sumptuous weed strains in glass jars in the dozens of smoke shops and dispensaries across the state. "I'm held to the same standards as anyone else who writes for the paper, and that includes people who have won Pulitzer Prizes," he says. "It's incumbent on me to double-check anything that goes into a column, and I've been blessed with some incredibly talented editors. The support I've received has been humbling."
Browne has written about weed for a long time. He's an inveterate stoner with a flashy, personal writer's voice who previously paid his bills with contracted advertorial work. ("Here's some strains, say nice things," as Browne characterizes it.) The Post job made him one of the first salaried weed critics in America, which is groundbreaking for an industry that is not usually treated with the same delicate reverence as, say, the wine business or the current coast-to-coast fascination with craft beer. Though other papers followed suit, there is not a particularly long history for weed criticism in North America, and when the Denver Post first started adding marijuana writers, it faced some pushback from some conservative corners. ("We have an award-winning craft beer blog, from that logic you do need a pot critic," the Post's marijuana editor and longtime staff member Ricardo Baca told the New York Times.) That lack of precedent meant Browne couldn't turn to the Roger Ebert of pot punditry to dictate his craft, and instead had to find marijuana's critical posture all by himself.
Of course, that's not much of a challenge if you're equipped with a superb weed palette. Browne's prose pops with an adroit sixth sense. He's capable of plucking out subtle gumdrops of fruit and flavor that pierce through the overwhelming dank. His process would make event the most serious sommelier feel like a slacker.
"I take dry hits to get a good feel for the taste. I'll make note of all the terpenes [fragrant oils natural to cannabis] that are present," says Browne. "I usually won't inhale my first hit until I get a good idea of the flavor."
Most important, and most radically, Browne evaluates the high delivered by each thicket of weed that crosses his desk. The airiness, the euphoria, the anesthesia. "It wouldn't be a complete column if I didn't," he says. The "drug" part of an intoxicant has long been a taboo in scholarly criticism—you'll never spot a wine writer going long on the giddiness brought forth by a glass of Merlot—but Browne understands why people smoke marijuana, and it would be intellectually dishonest to focus exclusively on the welcoming smell or the tasteful contours of the bud. A marijuana buzz is inscrutable—a reflection of an individual's proclivities rather than an objective benchmark—so instead he asks you to digest his work as a friend sinking into the couch. "Everyone's physiology is so different and someone could have the exact opposite reaction [to the strain] that I had," says Browne.
"I knew there needed to be a personal aspect to my writing because I knew that so much of someone's experience with cannabis is personal," he continues. "You're writing about the physical effects of trying something, but if people don't know anything about you, it's hard to have a frame of reference of what that experience is truly like."
Another weed critic figuring out his way in this relatively new field is Thomas Mitchell. Though he expected to be a sportswriter when he was studying journalism at Arizona State, another path presented itself shortly after graduation when marijuana was legalized in Colorado, where he'd taken an internship at the Denver alt-weekly Westword. Today, Mitchell is that paper's go-to marijuana beat reporter, as well as their pot critic, where his comprehensive strain reviews are published under the hilarious pen name "Herbert Fuego."
"Everyone is trying to get into the industry and apply their skills to marijuana, and journalism is no different," says Mitchell. "I think I just found a void at the right time and filled it." He's loved weed for a long time, the type of stoner who spends time reading up on the greenthumb theories that generate the finest and strongest specimens. Mitchell tells me there's no difference between a thoughtful herbalist's touch and the micromanagement necessary to produce a considered cask of beer. "I came across a strain called Smurfette the other day. It had some berry genetics, and it smelled amazing. I hadn't heard of it, and I'm really glad I tried it," he says. "If someone was making an IPA with some new hops in it, you'd be curious."
Sixty percent of Americans want to legalize cannabis. That's the highest support has ever been in 47 years. You can probably chalk the bulk of that groundswell to the fed-up exhaustion with a failed war on drugs—8 million Americans have been arrested for minor possession charges between 2000 and 2010—and weed critics like Thomas Mitchell and Jake Browne have the opportunity to build on that, and show the country that marijuana craftsmanship deserves to be taken seriously. "It's raising the standard, it's holding the growers accountable," says Mitchell. "The more brains behind cannabis the better."
Does that mean we're on the cusp of an elegant, buttoned-up class of weed critics? Probably not, and Browne doesn't look at his responsibility that way. People come to his columns looking for advice of all types. Sometimes they're looking to get knocked on their ass, sometimes they've got a mother who's been diagnosed with cancer, or a son born with epilepsy, and are looking for a drug they never thought they needed. "[Those cases] extends far beyond what traditional criticism is," he says.
"We are the frontline guinea pigs for legalization. We try these various strains to show that there's a very big difference between them, and different people need them for different reasons," Browne continues. "The more that becomes normalized, the better we'll be able to serve people."
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