July 13, 2014 in City

Spin Control: Pot reporting isn’t as sexy as it sounds

By The Spokesman-Review
 

During a quarter century-plus of living in Spokane, I regularly had to explain to friends and relatives elsewhere that it was not a suburb of Seattle and thus did not get rain all the time.

Now in Olympia, I battle a new misconception, that being the newspaper’s marijuana reporter is not like being its wine critic or beer columnist. It’s interesting on many levels – government policy, changing social standards, complicated chemistry – but there’s no sampling of the subject matter and it has about as many laughs as sitting through a legislative budget hearing.

Which is to say, almost none.

Whenever Washington’s new relationship with marijuana makes national news, envious friends in California will send a “seen this?” email with a story link to some other news outlet and a note usually cribbed from Cheech and Chong or Firesign Theatre.

For people who did not grow up in the ’60s, Firesign Theatre had better drug-themed humor a decade or more before Sean Penn did Jeff Spicoli. (And yes, I’m old enough to have spent hours listening to those freshly pressed vinyl albums. I am, after all, a grandfather and among the oldest pot reporters in the state.)

It was inevitable that acquaintances of similar age would send me Maureen Dowd’s column about going to Denver to sample Colorado’s new pot culture, having a bad experience eating a marijuana-infused chocolate bar, and holding forth on the “dark side” of the drug. A cautionary tale, a conservative friend texted.

Due respect to Ms. Dowd, who is often a fine columnist, but she did a stupid thing. If she’d done the tiniest bit of journalistic research about her subject, she would have known the infused chocolate bar had 16 doses of marijuana – each one probably stronger than the pot from the halcyon days of her youth. By some accounts, she was cautioned about this, and chose to ignore the warnings.

Ignoring warnings sometimes makes for a good column, even if it can mean a bad night in a Denver hotel room. An experienced pot reporter who can sample the product wouldn’t do that any more than a wine critic would order chardonnay with prime rib. And as previously stated, sampling is not part of my job description.

Relatives in the Midwest were initially impressed when, during a recent visit, they asked what I was covering and I gave them my standard mid-2014 answer: I have to know and talk more about pot than I ever did in college.

When a nephew gave me a “how cool would that be” look, I explained it means talking and writing about taxing, licensing and tracking systems and the differences between recreational and medicinal marijuana, which boil down to the chemical differences between tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol and between cannabis indica and cannabis sativa.

After 18 months of this, I can talk pot for a long time without once saying “dude” or “bummer” or “for sure.” I kept talking long enough for him to offer to get me another beer, the duty of every good nephew bored with his uncle’s chatter, and let him change the subject to baseball when he returned.

Some people question the amount we write about marijuana, but the stories are among the most read on the website, often generating significant numbers of reader comments, so it’s clearly a topic of public interest. We’re guilty of a few pot jokes and stoner stereotypes in headlines or stories along the way, but mostly we’ve tried to play it straight with the ins and outs of creating a voter-demanded system unique in the world.

The Spokesman-Review doesn’t have a full-time pot reporter like some bigger papers in Washington and Colorado. We pass it around, so to speak, but it’s mostly a government story with the main action in Olympia, except for events in Spokane like last Tuesday’s opening day of legal sales.

I watched that day approach with some trepidation. The event was destined to be overdone by television stations, which for weeks had been panting to find the first store to open – and in their race to be first with the story actually won a race to be wrong. The heavy local and national coverage would inevitably generate backlash from people unhappy Initiative 502 passed, prompt some scolding from others in the media, and likely lead to soul-searching by editors and journalism gurus in academia.

But colleague Kip Hill played it straight and did a good job capturing people involved in a historic event. We likely would have moved pot stories off the front page for a while if Spokane’s first purchaser had not discovered in seemingly record time that making marijuana legal doesn’t make a company’s anti-drug policy go away.

Bummer, dude. If you’d read some of the previous coverage, you for sure would’ve known.

Spin Control, a weekly column by political writer Jim Camden, also appears online with daily items and reader comments, at www.spokesman.com/blogs/spincontrol.


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