A couple days ago, I blurted out a few reactions to “Clearing the Haze,” the Gazette “perspective series” on Colorado’s first year of regulating, or trying to regulate, recreational marijuana. My initial take on it was that it was a deceptive presentation, dressing up an extended piece of opinion writing as regular news reporting. I still hold that view, but now that I’ve digested more of the series and have reflected on it, the more the whole episode seems to me to be less nefarious than it is just plain odd.
Others have examined the series in the light of various codes of ethics, and I won’t rehash that here. Columbia Journalism Review got the much-clamored-for interview with Gazette publisher Dan Steever, who pretty much acknowledged the entire effort was meant to present the dark side of Colorado’s legalization scheme, out of frustration that it isn’t being covered by the news media (though, see this March 25 report by AP [note: link has expired]). Presumably, that indictment included his own newsroom.
Odd. He could have just asked his editors and reporters to check into it. Problem solved.
Strange, too, that the Gazette devoted 4 days and 18 extended editorials to the subject. No question that legalized pot is a big deal, but that’s a lot of newsprint to spend on making what amounted to a few not-very-profound points. For example, at gazette.com, Day 1 was announced with this teaser:
“Sunday’s stories suggest the net gain from taxes and fees related to marijuana sales will not be known for a while, as costs are not known or tracked well, and there are many other unknowns about pot’s effects on public health and safety.”
I voted against Amendment 64 in 2012, but even I am not feeling much righteous vindication at this revelation. Amendment 64 forced the state to draw up, overnight, an entire regulatory scheme for something never before legalized in America. Of course the net effects are not going to be known in the first 12 months. Far simpler things have taken far longer to smooth out. A multi-page spread in the Sunday paper to make this point is all a bit . . . odd.
A newsroom examination of that question — in contrast to an opinion-driven report with a pre-determined point to make — would have asked the same question: How are the tax revenues stacking up against projections? But it would have asked further questions: How long will it take before we know if this is really working out? Is there any other regulatory endeavor we can compare this to? Apparently, the mandate behind “Clearing the Haze” contained no directive to ask such questions. Odd.
Day 2, meanwhile, was devoted to health impacts on pot, primarily on youth. The surprising finding: Prominent segments of the medical community continue to frown on kids using marijuana, even after Colorado’s vote on Amendment 64. Some studies continue to conclude smoking weed is bad for you; other studies continue to reach different conclusions. It has ever been thus, and one wonders what part of this widely known reality the creators of “Clearing the Haze” expected they would change.
Those who plowed through editorial after editorial, page after page, day after day, found a few nuggets worthy of examination: The tiny segment of the prison population consisting of people busted only for pot-related crimes (a fact perhaps well-known to others, but it’s new information to me). Or the rising number of pot-related incidents in local schools. Or Colorado’s emergence as a primary supplier of illicit marijuana to the rest of the country.
These strike me as real concerns. They would have been just as real, but more potent, in a news report that examined those facts from the perspectives of legalization advocates and detractors alike. Steever, however, told CJR he wasn’t interested in a variety of perspectives. The editorial on the black market contained some arresting information that begged for some explanation, some answer, from the state. Not a word was to be found. These findings could have had real power, real impact, if they had been presented in a context of transparent news reporting. Instead, they were delivered like a dour sermon.
That’s a weird way for a newspaper to behave. It’s not unheard-of for newspapers to use their opinion departments to produce investigative work, but when they do, they publish it on their opinion pages, not on the front page. More often, however, they let the newsroom dig out the facts and ask the questions, and leave the opinion writers to use those facts to build their arguments in the editorials. In this case, the same people who reported and wrote “Clearing the Haze” also wrote the concluding Gazette editorial that argued for an overhaul of Colorado’s pot-regulation apparatus, if a complete repeal of Amendment 64 can’t be arranged. How very strange. Whether you agree with the Gazette’s editorial conclusions is not the point; the point is that the Gazette’s editorial team could have made those very same arguments had the newsroom done the reporting.
Stranger still is the way the series, for all its gravity, never really follows through on the potentially real and serious facts it serves up. A Day-3 entry in the series contains intriguing testimony from a local lab about a dramatic rise in the number of parents bringing in their kids to test them for marijuana use. So, how many of these kids are actually testing positive? A rookie news reporter would not have failed to ask that question, and if somehow she did, a newsroom editor would be sure to send her back to the lab to find out. “Clearing the Haze” did not ask the question. Or, if it did, it did not report the answer. How odd.
The lead item on Day 4 of the series announces “Medical marijuana business still growing in Colorado.” It reveals that the number of Coloradans on the state’s medical marijuana registry continues to grow, even after sales of recreational pot became legal. Of course, medicine is medicine, and recreation is recreation, and in theory, one shouldn’t have any effect on the other.
Unless, of course, A) significant numbers of patients are moving into Colorado, or B) the whole “medical marijuana” concept is a sham, nothing more than a way for folks with a taste for pot to get a joint legally, in revolving-door clinics where unscrupulous physicians hand out red cards like Halloween candy. In which case, legalization should draw non-medical users out of the clinics and into the bright sunshine of no-questions-asked pot purchasing.
And really, this is one point where no serious person has any argument with “Clearing the Haze.” It is patently obvious, even to the most earnest believer in cannabis medicine, that the vast bulk of medical-marijuana clientele have no medical reason to consume it. This nudge-and-a-wink arrangement is so obvious that even state lawmakers have noticed it, and have pledged new scrutiny upon the doctors who are too free with their prescription pads. On this matter, it hardly seems the “Clearing the Haze” series was even necessary.
Nor is it a revelation that, owing to the comparatively lower taxes on easy-to-get medical pot, sales of the recreational stuff are not hitting the projections that state revenue forecasters had anticipated. The Tax Foundation made the same observation in two brief paragraphs seven months ago. It’s not as if Colorado’s revenue officials are in a cave, unaware that the tax rates need to be recalibrated.
Taken as a whole, the article portrays medical marijuana as an anchor dragging down recreational pot sales, in turn holding tax revenues below the official prediction.
But here’s the odd part: Recreational pot tax revenues actually are skyrocketing, according to Colorado Department of Revenue sales-tax reports. Since the day recreational pot became legal, monthly sales taxes collected on the stuff have increased by 2 1/2 times. During the same period, the monthly take of sales taxes from medical marijuana has decreased somewhat — even as the number of card holders has increased. The current monthly take in sales taxes on recreational marijuana is nearly six times the monthly amount collected from medical marijuana.
If you take into consideration all taxes levied on marijuana, including the 15 percent excise tax charged on wholesale purchases by recreational-marijuana retailers, then the total amount of tax money raised by recreational pot since January 2014 is five times the amount generated by medicinal marijuana during that time. If you add in license fees collected by the state, the money generated by the recreational-marijuana industry is nearly three times the amount generated by medical-marijuana operators. I’ve assembled the numbers here.
None of this invalidates the points about too-easy medical marijuana and out-of-kilter tax rates that create an incentive to purchase medical marijuana.
But it is a bit of perspective.