In November of 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first two states in the U.S. to legalize recreational marijuana. Pot shops opened up in both areas, with lines of giddy smokers forming around city blocks.
At the same time, the editors of The Denver Post recognized an opportunity: Weed was a brand new beat in a moment when the journalism industry seemed to be crumbling. And so, in 2013, the Post appointed Ricardo Baca—the paper’s former entertainment editor—to run The Cannabist, a Web site covering all things weed.
In a new documentary, Rolling Papers, director Mitch Dickman and producer Britta Erickson cover The Cannabist’s first year. The film, which opens on February 19, features Baca and his team of intrepid (and often high) reporters and critics, as well as their colorful subjects and readership.
As California is poised to vote on legalizing recreational weed in this November’s election, we talked to Baca about filming the documentary, how his life has changed in the past year, and what legalization has meant for the state of Colorado.
How did the documentary come about?
It certainly wasn’t my idea. Britta [Erickson] texted me one day and was like, “Hey, has anyone mentioned this? I think your life is about to get really compelling.” She and her colleague came in and met with the higher-ups at the Post. They assured me the film was going to be an ensemble piece—I have colleagues who have been covering this for years, they’re really experts—and so we went for it.
How has your job changed since taking over The Cannabist?
I was the music critic and the entertainment editor of the paper before this, so my work changed dramatically. At first, I wasn’t sure what this was going to mean for me, even logistically—would I have to switch departments? Would it affect my union status, or the fact that I worked from home two days a week?
But this has been the greatest gift for my career. Being a music critic is honestly one of the best jobs you could ever have, especially in your 20s and 30s. But this position let me really expand. It’s thrilling; every day, there’s something new to report on. It’s a gift. It really has been such a dynamic change.
Was it controversial for you to start writing about weed? What was the mood like in Colorado when the Post launched The Cannabist?
Yeah, it was a controversial mood. In November of 2012, [legal recreational marijuana] passed pretty definitively—it was about 55 to 45. And it’s still about the same. So there are still plenty of people who call and threaten to kill their Denver Post subscription, people who call and say that we are out to glamorize cannabis. Truth be told, this drug is already normalized; it’s normalized here, it’s more than normalized in California.
How are you shaping your coverage?
We wanted to treat this drug like the new drug that it is, and like the newly legal drug that it is. We have multiple pot critics that review this like it’s a new CD or a new varietal of wine. This is one of our responsibilities; to serve our readers and tell them what’s good and what’s bad.
A lot of the arguments you hear from people who are opposed to legal marijuana are that the number of people who use it will spike, or that things will become more dangerous within communities. Have you seen anything like that happen?
So, we are more than two years into this conversation now, and we’re finally starting to get data on what this means and how it’s affecting the community. That said, when you talk to the head of the Colorado Department of Health of the Chief of Police in Denver, they’ll all tell you that we are still not putting a lot of stock in these numbers.
For instance, Nancy Grace told us there was going to be mass hysteria and an uptick in violent crimes. We have seen those numbers stay relatively even, but the Denver police chief says that yeah, of course crime is down or even; it has nothing to do with marijuana, it has to do with the fact that Denver is in a great economy. We also saw no statistically significant increase in teen usage of marijuana in the first year of these sales. Does that change in ten years? Who knows. It might go up, it might go down.
Do you think that recreational marijuana will become legal on a national level any time soon?
Obama said rescheduling cannabis is not a priority of his in his last year. As it is, it’s scheduled alongside heroin, so the research opportunities [for marijuana] are very limited. I don’t think the federal changes are coming any time soon, and then we’ll have a new president and they will be careful in their first term. So no, I don’t imagine that will happen any time soon, at least not until congress has more of a shared voice on the issue.
But it’s undeniable that we are going to continue to see states legalize marijuana. California is about to vote on recreational legalization, and Nevada—home to the world’s largest adult playground, Las Vegas—is about to vote on legalization. If you look at the number of people who will be voting on this, it really is amazing to think about what might be happening in this space in 2016. Everybody is watching.