Are the editors high? Why trendy news features on pot are a bad idea

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The legalization of marijuana in several states has sparked a brand-new genre of mainstream media feature reporting: in-depth exploration of all the fun things readers can do while under the influence.

Apparently, the concept of a “family newspaper” has changed.

Many major regional news outlets in the 18 states where marijuana is fully legalized are now packed with upbeat lifestyle articles extolling the virtues of a once-underground cannabis culture. Reviews of retail stores, special smokers’ lounges, and “pot-forward” dinner recipes can be found in newspaper “Entertainment” and “Food” sections.

A leading California newspaper recently offered guidance on how to enjoy Disneyland while high; the Space Mountain roller coaster was a particular favorite. Up in the Northwest, a mainstream news outlet suggested glow-in-the-dark mini-golf was much better after some pot ingestion. In Colorado, a paper’s special online section called “The Cannabist” served up ways to “infuse cannabis” into Thanksgiving recipes. One of the largest Midwestern news organizations published advice on “how to throw a marijuana dinner party with tips on dosing, ambiance, and avoiding a buzz kill.”

On one level, there’s no problem with any of this, I suppose. These activities are no longer against the law in those states. And legalization, one can argue, contains some substantial social benefit. The drive to decriminalize cannabis was fueled by one compelling, undeniable fact: Far too many people were crowding jails and prisons on often-minor marijuana charges or convictions. A strong case can be made that, on the whole, our society is better off without those pot restrictions.

But the rush to correct that wrong has led to a fresh list of potential problems. Basically, scientific research and law enforcement practices had no time to catch up with the new legalized reality; the effects of that are now seen every day. 

Police use a standard measurement of alcohol in the bloodstream to judge on the spot whether or not someone is driving while intoxicated. With marijuana, trying to make any similar assessment presents police and courts with a gray area at best. In fact, websites for law firms specializing in DUI arrests — which now enjoy an influx of brand new, non-alcohol-related clients — carefully explain how these blurred lines may offer a way out of legal trouble.

And there’s more gray on top of that. Most states have placed tight regulations on cannabis dispensaries. As a result, the non-regulated illegal pot trade continues to thrive. According to one report, 80 to 90 percent of marijuana sales in California fall into a “legal gray zone.” The state legislature even authorized a $100 million plan last year to bolster “struggling” sanctioned cannabis businesses.

That means many pot products often don’t follow any kind of manufacturing standard. A study of Denver-area emergency rooms showed that candy-like “edible” marijuana products “induced a disproportionate number of pot-related medical crises.” Research by the University of Michigan indicated that vaping cannabis with e-cigarette devices is often more dangerous than vaping tobacco.

Hard news reporters write about all of this, of course. Troubling issues are not ignored. And feature stories nearly always contain warnings about driving or operating complex machinery while under the influence. But that doesn’t erase questions raised by the cheery, friendly coverage many news organizations now devote to marijuana.

Few news outlets would publish an article recommending things to do while drunk.

Although feature sections often highlight cocktail recipes and trendy bars, it’s unlikely readers will find tips about how much more fun Disneyland is after two or three whiskey sours. It would also be difficult to find a mainstream newspaper’s guide to places in town where you could happily smoke a few packs of cigarettes.

That makes the marijuana push feel more than a bit desperate. News organizations are often frantic to reach younger audiences. Their reviewers, critics and lifestyle writers need to be seen as hip, with their fingers firmly placed on the edgiest pulse of popular culture.

Feature coverage of cannabis culture is part of that frenzied drive to be considered “relevant” by a particular demographic. But that comes at the expense of seeming irresponsible, given all that is known and — more importantly — unknown about pot consumption.

Again, there are important positive aspects to the legalization of marijuana — especially in the area of criminal justice. But that doesn’t make pot just another commonplace consumer product helping someone get through the day, like coffee or a chocolate bar.

Along with the right to use cannabis legally comes responsibilities. Not just for consumers — but for news organizations, too.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.

Tags American journalism Cannabis law Cannabis smoking edibles Effects of cannabis feature reporting legal marijuana Legality of cannabis news features News media Psychoactive drugs

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