As two US states prepare for its legalisation on 1 January, there are signs that recreational marijuana has not just entered Colorado’s constitution, but also joined the cultural mainstream.
The Denver Post, by far the state’s most-read newspaper, has appointed its first marijuana editor to helm the coverage of legalisation, which the Post’s news director Kevin Dale described as “our biggest story in the coming year”.
Ricardo Baca, the paper’s former entertainment editor, has been tasked with overseeing a website devoted to cannabis. In a memo, Mr Dale said: “Ricardo will be working with editors and reporters in every department to ensure the site is lively, authoritative, in-depth, educational and packed with content spanning regulations to reviews.”
At the November 2012 election, Colorado voters passed Amendment 64, rendering recreational marijuana legal. From next month, anyone aged 21 and over will be permitted to buy up to an ounce of weed for recreational use from one of the state’s selection of licensed retailers. Though cannabis remains illegal at a federal level, the Obama administration has signalled that it will allow legalisation to proceed in Colorado and Washington state, which has passed a similar law.
The rest of the US – and the world – will be watching closely as the new law takes effect. Talk-show host Jay Leno and the cast of Saturday Night Live have already joked about the Post’s new ‘weed editor’. In a Q&A on the newspaper’s website, Mr Baca said: “The reason this is all so ripe for national commentary is because we’re on the forefront of an international story. When recreational pot hits the Colorado streets… the drug will be more legal here than anywhere else in the world.”
Chris Simunek, editor-in-chief of the monthly cannabis magazine High Times, said, “Marijuana for so long has been something talked about under the table; it was a no-no on prime-time television. But now you’re seeing it taken seriously by a morning newspaper that anybody could pick up and thumb through. I think that’s a very positive step.”
Medical marijuana is now legal in 20 US states and Washington DC. CNN’s chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, one of the most high-profile doctors in the US, recently came out in support its legalisation for medical use. “For years all the positive coverage of marijuana was in the underground press,” Mr Simunek said. “But now you’re seeing it in the above-ground press and on television.”
Mason Tvert, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project and a pro-legalisation campaigner based in Denver, said that in the past the Post had been supportive of cannabis legalisation. “As support continues to grow for ending marijuana prohibition, there’s been more coverage of the issue than ever before,” Mr Tvert said. “There’s a need to ensure the information being conveyed is accurate and objective, so we hope the person who fills this new role will take an objective look at the issue and ensure that people are getting the facts and seeing the whole story.”
Under Mr Baca, the paper’s reporting of marijuana news will be broad. “We will cover weed in Colorado, on our state’s borders, in the US and beyond,” he said. The Post also plans to take on several freelance contributors, such as a cannabis reviewer and a “pot advice columnist”.
The newspaper’s human resources chief, Missy Miller, said staff on the marijuana beat would still be subject to the company’s drug and alcohol policy, and would be drug-tested if they appeared to be “impaired” while on the job. Asked if he was a weed smoker himself, Mr Baca replied: “I’ve covered concerts for a living over the last 15 years. That means hanging out with musicians, working with people in the industry, attending music festivals in Austin and the Coachella valley and New York and LA. So yes.”