By Chris Walsh
The drumbeat of support for marijuana legalization has been growing steadily over the past year.
But it’s become noticeably louder in the last few weeks, with everyone from The New York Times and The Boston Globe to the Brookings Institution and lawmakers heaping praise on the cannabis industry.
This high-level, rapid-fire exposure amounts to more than just headlines.
Advocates say the recent flurry of positive press is helping to change the perception of cannabis and marijuana businesses among the general public and lawmakers.
It’s also boosting support for cannabis – and blunting arguments from opponents – in states that are trying to legalize recreational or medical marijuana. That could lead to real change at the ballot box this November and down the road.
“You can’t turn the news on anymore without seeing a positive story about cannabis,” said Tom Quigley, chief executive officer of the Florida Cannabis Coalition, a membership-based organization for marijuana professionals in the state, where an MMJ legalization proposal will be put to voters this fall. “That’s shaping opinions favorably.”
Support From All Corners
The sheer volume of favorable press from noted individuals, media organizations and research groups as of late is impressive.
Some recent examples:
- On July 26, The Boston Globe published a first-person account from one of its reporters about traveling to Colorado for cannabis. The piece painted a positive picture of the industry and batted down concerns by outsiders that the state’s quality of life is deteriorating.
- The following day, The New York Times dropped a bombshell, running an editorial urging the federal government to legalize marijuana. It then ran a series of pro-legalization stories throughout the week.
- The Brookings Institution, a well-known think tank, released a report by one of its researchers lauding Colorado’s recreational marijuana industry, saying the state has rolled out its program exceptionally well.
- A state senator from Pennsylvania wrote a newspaper editorial about a recent trip to explore Colorado’s recreational cannabis industry. His conclusion: “we saw a system that was working.” He also wrote that legalized cannabis presents “a tremendous economic opportunity.”
- Controversial Fox News talk show host Bill O’Reilly – a vocal opponent of marijuana legalization – ran two polls on his website asking visitors to vote on whether they think cannabis should be legal. The results were overwhelmingly in favor of marijuana legalization, which is surprising given that his audience is heavily conservative.
Additionally, a marijuana company ran a full-page advertisement in the New York Times last weekend – marking a first for the newspaper.
These developments have spawned even more stories on TV stations and other reputable newspapers across the country.
A recent piece in the Washington Post said the cannabis ad in The New York Times – coupled with a similar ad by a group opposed to marijuana and the paper’s support of legalization – marks “a turning point in the debate over marijuana in this country.” Both supporters and opponents are “in agreement that marijuana has moved out of the counterculture and into the mainstream,” the piece concludes.
It does indeed seem like the industry has gone mainstream. And although there has been some negative press as well, the avalanche of positive exposure is changing how the public views cannabis.
Katie Johnston, the Globe reporter who wrote on her experience in Colorado, said she received largely positive feedback not only from readers but also from her peers.
“I was amazed by the lack of outrage/dismay/disapproval from readers in Boston,” she wrote in an email to Marijuana Business Daily. “A few commenters slammed me for being an irresponsible, degenerate journalist, of course, but the reaction was largely positive. My co-workers loved it. Many said they didn’t know much about what was going with marijuana legalization in Colorado, and said they learned a lot from my story about what the scene and culture were like.”
Massachusetts legalized medical marijuana in 2012 and is moving forward with licensing dispensaries to provide the drug in the near future. The state is seen as a leading candidate to legalize recreational marijuana in 2016, so the Globe piece – and others like it over the next two years – could certainly help generate support.
This is already playing out in other states like Florida, as Quigley of the Florida Cannabis Coalition noted.
“Voters who are unfamiliar with the industry are starting to see that there are community benefits,” he said. “The press is really helping educate people. We have newspapers like the Palm Beach Post that have allocated reporters specifically to this issue, and that increases awareness.”
Advocates in Oregon, which has a measure on the ballot this fall to legalize recreational marijuana, are seeing a similar effect.
Peter Zuckerman – communications director for Yes on 91, which is spearheading the legalization effort in Oregon – said the favorable reports underscore the benefits of marijuana legalization and signal the need for a new approach to cannabis in general. That could boost support for legalization heading into the election.
“Research and reporting increasingly reflects that it makes more sense to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana for adults,” Zuckerman said. “We are going to fight for every vote and make our case to Oregon voters, but the good news that has been coming out certainly helps.”
Countering the Opposition
The other main benefit of positive press is that it dispels stereotypes about cannabis legalization and the people and businesses involved.
Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, said it also “insulates” advocates and the industry from arguments made by the opposition.
He pointed specifically to the favorable stories and reports about Colorado’s recreational industry, such as the Brookings study.
“Sales began without controversy (or) violence, tax revenue is up, the taxes are starting to reach the schools, etc.,” Kampia said. “So it’s very hard for prohibitionists to claim that Colorado is a disaster, even if Colorado actually were a disaster.”
In the end, it gives the movement an air of legitimacy, which will help spread legalization to new markets.
“Because the Colorado experience and the overall zeitgeist of marijuana legalization has so much credibility,” Kampia said, “this strengthens our hand in our campaigns, and the opposition isn’t getting a free ride with the public or reporters.”