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Why the time is right to take cannabis more seriously as a policy beat

Why the time is right to take cannabis more seriously as a policy beat

Picture of Paul Demko
Why the time is right to take cannabis more seriously as a policy beat

Nearly a year ago, I approached the top editor of POLITICO Pro with a simple question: Have we ever thought about covering cannabis?

I mean, really covering cannabis.

My interest had been peaked by listening to a season of Slate’s Working podcast that was focused on the weed industry in Colorado. Almost every conversation came to back to the same topic: how complicated, time-consuming and expensive it is for cannabis companies to navigate the 50-state patchwork quilt of regulations.

My reaction: That’s a policy reporter’s dream. 

Cannabis is a rapidly growing, rapidly changing, unevenly regulated industry that presents unprecedented conflicts between state and federal laws. More than 30 states now have legal medical or recreational marijuana programs, despite the continuing federal prohibition. Congress’s decision to include in the 2018 farm bill the national legalization of hemp — marijuana’s non-intoxicating botanical sibling — has sowed further confusion across the country. That bewildering policy landscape creates tremendous opportunities for journalists. 

But very few media outlets — particularly mainstream publications — are covering cannabis in a way that reflects that reality. Too often, reporters still see marijuana stories as an opportunity to make stale weed jokes and puns (admittedly, an understandable temptation).

The other realization I came to about cannabis is that the questions confronting the burgeoning industry cut across almost every other policy area: health care, agriculture, financial services, labor, law enforcement and transportation, among others. Why is it so difficult to conduct medical research into a substance that tens of millions of Americans are using regularly? Can banks do business with cannabis companies without being punished by the federal government? How do cops determine if a driver who has consumed marijuana is too impaired to drive? 

In part because of this, I came to believe that POLITICO Pro — our policy-focused, paid subscription product — is ideally situated to provide in-depth coverage of the cannabis industry. That’s because we already have a massive team of superb policy reporters covering many of the areas that intersect with cannabis. Our health care team alone — which has been covering medical marijuana — is nearly two-dozen members deep. We also have a growing footprint in the states, most notably in California, the world’s largest legal weed market, where we now have a team of eight reporters based in Sacramento.

One more factor convinced me that the time was ripe for devoted cannabis policy coverage: the increasing willingness among lawmakers on Capitol Hill to take on the issue. While most of the action has been in state capitals since Colorado and Washington launched the modern legalization movement in 2012, that’s changing rapidly. As more and more states loosen their laws, it’s creating a growing cannabis constituency in Congress. The biggest indication: The House passed cannabis banking legislation in September by a 321-103 vote, with strong bipartisan support.

In September, we launched our cannabis coverage with a three-person team based in Washington and a daily newsletter that will be the backbone of our content. In order to make a splash, we did an entire package of stories for The Agenda, our deep dive online policy magazine (all of which is outside the paywall — it’s free). That included one of our health care reporters digging into the bewildering challenges of conducting medical marijuana research, a member of the agriculture team exploring the confusion sowed by the legalization of hemp, and a financial services reporter peeling back the lobbying efforts that led to the passage of cannabis banking legislation in the House.

The response to our initial efforts has been overwhelmingly positive. There is a pent-up demand among advocates, lawmakers, lobbyists and company officials for sophisticated coverage that reflects the reality of this fascinating, complicated, controversial, rapidly evolving industry.

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