Lifestyle

The Country’s First ‘Marijuana Editor’ Talks Weed

by Tasbeeh Herwees

February 26, 2016

In many ways, Rolling Papers is a documentary about journalism. The film, which was released on VOD earlier this month, captures the ambition and tenacity of editor Ricardo Baca’s team at the The Denver Post as they chase down stories about Colorado’s changing cultural landscape. What makes Baca and his crew different, however, is that they’re the first team at a traditional newspaper dedicated solely to covering marijuana. Rolling Papers, a feature-length documentary about their first year on the legal-weed beat in Colorado, is as much a portrait of their reporting efforts as it is an insightful look into how the cannabis industry is contending with a mass consumer base.

When Baca’s position as the country’s first “weed editor” was first announced, the news became the subject of jokes for the mainstream media. But since 2013, Baca’s team has been responsible for some of the most hard-hitting investigative work on the marijuana industry, helping usher in a new era of regulation. In Rolling Papers, they discover that marijuana edibles companies were mislabeling their products, advertising higher dosages than the foods contained. Baca also runs the Cannabist, a marijuana blog for The Denver Post that publishes daily marijuana news, culture stories, and reviews of plant strains and products. We talked to Baca about Colorado’s rapidly growing marijuana industry, the local stoner culture, and what lies ahead for the state.

Ricardo Baca in Rolling Papers. Still from the documentary.

There's been so much interest from the national press ever since the position was announced. How has Colorado’s mainstream culture, and stoner culture, changed since you first began?

What you're just starting to see is normalization taking root right in front of your face, which is incredibly fascinating. When you travel through other parts of the country or the world, marijuana is treated very differently…. And some people take that for granted, take our rights for granted.

You can walk into a store with nothing other than your I.D. and some cash and buy some legal cannabis. [Before the] dinner party, instead of hitting the liquor store and getting a couple bottles of champagne, you might be stopping by the dispensary and grabbing a couple of pre-rolled joints, or an edible to share. And you’re also seeing that on the macro level, how it’s changing things as well. Certainly, marijuana-related charges have just plummeted ever since the recreational legalization was signed into the state’s constitution in December of 2012.

A friend who was visiting recently from Beirut told me that although Lebanon has a very strong drinking culture, there was still this incredible taboo attached to marijuana. It’s interesting to hear that, especially living in L.A., where marijuana is so available.

It's absolutely true. Somebody in Turkey, asking me what I do for a living, it's like, ‘Oh, well, I write about marijuana, I edit stories about cannabis.’ It blows their mind that this is even happening. I think that's the reason why this film is as compelling as it is, because it really is capturing what it looks like in the world's first-ever legal weed market.

Do you see Colorado as a test market for the rest of the country?

Absolutely. I think everybody tends to look at it that way. The governor of Colorado, [John] Hickenlooper, certainly tells people to treat it as such, when other governors approach him and ask him, ‘Hey, these conversations are happening in my state too. What do you think? Should we do this? Was this a good idea for Colorado?’ He was very much against Amendment 64 [which legalized recreational marijuana] throughout 2012. We voted yes on it as a community. It passed overwhelmingly in Colorado—55 percent. Now he's come around to it. He does think it can be done responsibly and reliably within a regulated culture. He still tells those fellow governors that they should hold off for a couple years and have a look at how things are breaking down in Colorado and the other legal markets, and make decisions based on the kind of evidence they get from witnessing what’s happened here.

That example you used earlier about bringing marijuana instead of a bottle of wine to your friend’s dinner party brought home the possibility of the “squarification” of marijuana culture. Is it going to lose its edge in a place where it’s so readily available?

You know, already, I think it’s fair to say that cannabis is less hip now than it was five years ago. You can have a frank conversation with your parents about their drugs of choice and your drugs of choice … It’s still illegal if you’re under 21, but now that your dad has a vape pen and he treats it in the same dorky manner that he might treat his expensive bottle of scotch or cheap bottle of beer, it’s suddenly less interesting from a cultural perspective, especially for use.

Still from the film Rolling Papers

What has been the most surprising thing about becoming Colorado’s first weed editor?

It’s been surprising to me that I’ve had so many opportunities to push pause on my blog gig and really delve into some investigative reporting. In the first year, it was a story that ended up being captured on film for the documentary. It was realizing that people were being ripped off by edibles companies and that there was no consistency in dosing in these marijuana-infused edibles. It’s certainly a story that has been replicated a number of times in Oregon, Washington, and multiple times out of California, where it’s completely unregulated right now. Nobody is looking out for the consumer in that kind of situation.

I’ve also spent a majority of my last seven months working on a deep investigative series on pesticides … We took cannabis extracts to a lab and had them tested for potential pesticide residue, pesticide chemicals that are banned for use on cannabis and actually illegal, and we ended up finding some, and that led to the city of Denver’s first-ever recall of a marijuana product over pesticides. Now the city has done 19 other recalls in about 20 weeks. Last week, it was big news because the state of Colorado put out its first-ever pesticide-related hold and, you know, we were writing about this and testing products back in June of last year.

Where does Colorado go from here? What does the future of marijuana in Colorado look like?

Part of it is definitely more regulations, and we’re starting to see that happen. The state legislative season started up here last month. That was in January, and already they’ve probably discussed more than 10 different cannabis-related bills.

But we’re also starting to see government’s ability to finally start enforcing regulation that was written well before these sales started. I wrote that story on [edibles] in February, it ran in March. And then in May, the state government came out and said that they were making testing mandatory for potency on recreational products. I can't necessarily take credit for that, but certainly the daily newspaper embarrassing the industry, embarrassing the state on the front page of [The Denver Post] must’ve helped that situation.

Jake Browne, one of the Cannabist’s marijuana reviewers. Still from the film Rolling Papers.

I tried to read some of the reviews on the Post’s weed blog, and I couldn’t understand a lot of it, but I appreciated the attention to detail. It was really fascinating to discover this whole new vocabulary.

I really do want our reviews to be understood and applicable to whoever might choose to read them. At the same time, yeah, there’s a certain vernacular. And while a wine critic might be talking about different varietals and different noses and hints, cannabis criticism has its own terminology. One of our critics is Jake Browne, and I think he’s absolutely one of the best in the game, and doing some fantastic work in that kind of still-developing space.

We learned this on the first three months on the job: Even though this community—we can call it stoners, or potheads, or cannabis enthusiasts—even though they have the reputation they have, it’s not always deserving. They are an incredibly knowledgeable and discerning readership.

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The Country’s First ‘Marijuana Editor’ Talks Weed