One day when I was in college, my philosophy professor was telling our class about the similarities between chocolate and marijuana. He described how 16th century European colonizers first encountered chocolate in what is now Central America. Back then the indigenous people used cacao ceremonially, and the Europeans viewed this unfamiliar and exotic substance with intrigue and suspicion. They saw it as intoxicating, perhaps dangerously so, and some legends even ascribed magical—i.e., satanic—powers to this simple bean.
The professor drew an analogy between Europeans’ introduction to chocolate and the “reefer madness” avalanche of misinformation that prohibitionists heaped upon marijuana in the early 20th century, resulting in the illogically draconian drug policies that have endured for decades. A student (not me) raised his hand and asked the obvious question: “Does that mean in about 300 years we’ll be able to buy marijuana the same way you can get a Hershey’s bar now?”
The professor replied with a wistful sigh: “Oh, I hope it doesn’t take that long.”
Of course, it took less than 30 years for the professor’s wish to come true, only we’re still dealing with that avalanche of misinformation. To begin to remedy this, the University of Denver will launch a one-week class for its students in August called, “Cannabis Journalism: Covering and Reporting on America’s New Normal.” Led by Andrew Matranga, a lecturer in DU’s digital media department, the four-credit class will teach students the ins and outs of marijuana journalism.
Although the journalistic fundamentals shouldn’t vary much from any other kind of reporting, covering weed can be tricky because many of the sources a reporter encounters may still be living and working in legal gray areas that can make them more reluctant to divulge information or go on the record. (In the interest of making those gray areas less hazy, DU has also announced the creation of a professorship devoted to studying marijuana legality in the school’s Sturm College of Law. The position will be endowed by the influential Denver marijuana law firm Vicente Sederberg.)
Because of those decades of prohibition, there’s a distinct lack of research about marijuana’s legal, medical, and cultural effects, which is part of the reason so much weed-related journalism is hacky, shallow, and uninformed. (The other part of the reason: Many reporters are hacky, shallow, and uninformed anyway.) But as legalization takes hold here and spreads to other parts of the country, the more we can get past the entrenched stigmas and biases, the more intelligent our 21st century drug policies can be. Forward-thinking programs like those at DU will be a key driver of these changes.
Follow 5280 editor-at-large Luc Hatlestad at @LucHatlestad.