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How cannabis legalization is changing journalism

On a cold February evening, close to 50 people from all walks of the journalism industry gathered to discuss an unlikely combination: journalism and weed.

As it turns out, weed journalism is growing as fast as the legal weed industry itself. Topics in weed journalism are broad and range from serious ones, such as sexual assault in the cannabis industry, to lighter issues, such as the surprisingly heated debate surrounding semantics and terminology within the business and among the journalists who report on it.

Manisha Krishnan, a VICE reporter and what looked to be the youngest member of the panel, ironically has been covering cannabis longer than any of the other panelists. She says that the most interesting part of her time reporting on cannabis has been watching it transition from “a black market, kind of counter culture beat, to it becoming this regulated industry… and seeing it become so corporate, and so much less cool.”

red jacket panelist
Krishnan speaking about her experiences. Photo credit: Benson Chan

Everyone on the panel agreed that because the cannabis industry is so young, there is an increased level of importance and responsibility among journalists to not take press releases from cannabis companies at face value.

Blonde panelist speaking to audience member
Henderson speaking to Emerge Magazine's Matt Sexsmith. Photo credit: Benson Chan

Megan Henderson, the executive editor of Postmedia’s cannabis news site TheGrowthOp.com, says that journalists’ responsibilities go beyond the business aspect of reporting on cannabis. Due to the legislation surrounding cannabis legalization, cannabis companies can’t educate their consumers on the proper way to use their product. “I think there’s a responsibility among editorial bodies to help educate these consumers to make sure that if they are going to use cannabis, they’re using it responsibly,” she says.

Another key issue raised in the panel was whether media outlets were not doing their due diligence and becoming too pro-cannabis in the age of legalization.

Armina Ligaya, a business reporter with the Canadian Press, doesn’t believe the risk lies in being pro-cannabis, but pro-industry. However, she notes that even with the risk of journalists becoming pro-industry, that the legalization of cannabis will ultimately be a positive for journalism. Ligaya says it will begin to “shine a light” on topics ranging from the science of cannabis to understanding just how profitable the industry can be.

Armina Ligaya explaining her position. Photo credit: Benson Chan

The moderator of the panel, Vanmala Subramaniam, pushed the subject further and wondered if what is happening in journalism now for cannabis happened to journalism back in the post-prohibition days of alcohol. She notes an increase in studies showing alcohol’s potential harm, and wonders if the future of cannabis might be similar.

Mark Rendell, a cannabis-business reporter with the Globe and Mail, believes that the biggest risk around using cannabis isn’t from biased reporting, but the unsubstantiated claims made by the public. An example he mentioned was the rise in the promotion of CBD as a “cure-all” drug and the lack of scientific sources that back up any of the medical claims made by people promoting cannabis.

Rendell talking about the intricacies of cannabis in business. Photo credit: Benson Chan

Rendell notes that cannabis could have potential health benefits, however he remains skeptical until more studies have been done. “It’s less an issue of are we pushing a harmful substance, [and] more, are we relying on claims from companies that have a very clear financial interest to spread the product as wide as possible?” he says.

The panel continued for an hour and a half, moving into a discussion of the biggest stories in cannabis journalism and opening the floor to questions.

The discourse generated from the panel and the question period was fascinating, and Emerge Magazine is investigating some of the topics that were brought up, including roadside drug tests, black-market cannabis retailers transitioning to legal sales and the history of terms within cannabis culture.

Editor-in-chief of the Emerge online magazine. Loves to talk about public policy and is also a huge research nerd.

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