As Minnesota moves to legalize adult-use marijuana, Ricardo Baca has some advice for Minnesotans on what to expect.
A daily newspaper reporter and editor for 24 years, Baca became the cannabis editor at the Denver Post in 2012, when Colorado, along with Washington, was one of the first states to legalize recreational marijuana. The first full-time cannabis editor and reporter at a mainstream media outlet, Baca is the founder of the Cannabist, which covers the waterfront in terms of marijuana news, including Oklahoma as the new “Wild West of weed,” Colorado’s first licensed cannabis-consumption bus, and Denver’s upcoming Mile High 420 Festival.
Baca’s early days as a cannabis correspondent were captured in the 2015 documentary “Rolling Papers,” and for three years he oversaw a full-time staff of eight journalists covering the industry. Later, he launched Grasslands, a cannabis-centric marketing and public relations agency.
Minnesota DFLers have pledged to make recreational marijuana legal in the state this legislative session. As the legislation that would do that advances, MinnPost caught up with Baca by phone from his home in Colorado to discuss the future of legalized … let’s call it MNPot. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
MinnPost: Colorado is 10 years in front of Minnesota right now. What can we expect here? What would you tell Minnesotans about the cannabis movement?
Ricardo Baca: The moves from the medical environment to an adult use environment is obviously just a radical transformative shift. And that shift really applies to the entire community, because suddenly anybody who’s over the age of 21 can walk into a dispensary and buy cannabis legally, which is of course the way it should be, but we’ve just been stuck in a wrongheaded environment for so many years.
When we were going through that transition, we really didn’t know what anything was going to look like. We didn’t know how different the adult use dispensaries might be compared to the medical dispensaries and how different the market might be. Now we’ve seen more states make that that jump into adult use, and so now we know exactly what it looks like, and exactly the kinds of things that will happen to any given community or metropolitan area as it transitions from medical to adult use.
The biggest changes are that we’re no longer putting people behind bars for something that should have never been criminalized to begin with, and we’re increasing people’s access to an efficacious medicine that is slowly gaining steam and legitimacy for treating conditions and symptoms across the spectrum, and that alone is transformational. But in terms of how is it going to change Minneapolis or St. Paul, or those communities? There’s not going to be an immediate noticeable shift.
MP: What stories would you want to see about Minnesota for the Cannabist, say, as dispensaries crop up and the government starts with regulation and oversight?
RB: Written deep into the codes and the regulations are all of these promises that the government is making to the people. So as a journalist, I found it really compelling to go through those regs and make sure, “Hey, are these promises being lived up to? Is the government doing what it promised to do?” You know, primarily coming down to, “Is the government protecting public health?” When Colorado implemented legalization, I noticed that there was not a legitimate infrastructure for testing labs to operate in. When you think about the benefits of the regulated market, one is that you actually know what you’re consuming, because state regulators are enacting rules around which this plant can be grown and processed and sold.
But if there are no rules, and if there are no laboratories that are licensed to conduct this kind of granular public health testing, then that’s a failure on behalf of the government. And I wrote many stories where the government wasn’t living up to its promise, and that was really powerful. My reporting went to inform executive orders by the governor of Colorado and also forced city, county, state lawmakers to enact protections that they’d promised to implement when they hadn’t, which ultimately is being a watchdog for public health.
Those were big stories that I liked doing, but in the early days of the regulated market, too, I found an opportunity to cover the brands and the early cannabis companies. I really wanted to hold them accountable and let them know that we’re paying attention. I tested edibles for potency; I tested concentrates for the presence of the active ingredients oftentimes found in pesticides that are widespread in terms of agricultural use but are illicit and illegal for use in growing cannabis, because of its very specific consumption patterns.
I think it was some of the most important journalism I did and, at the same time, you’re dealing with a populace that does not understand cannabis. So as a journalist, it really is your responsibility to educate them and to make sure that they understand this complex plant that they have been misinformed and miseducated on over an 85-year-old campaign of (the 1936 propaganda film) “Reefer Madness.”
MP: What stories are you looking for and what’s interesting about the beat for you these days?
RB: I mean, there’s a million stories that I’d be working on right now if I was still writing full-time, and I think so many of them are the ones that really quantify the growth that we’re seeing in the space, both good and bad. The research being done, the research not being done; even the movement toward federally legalizing psychedelics, which is thrilling. And at the same time, why is the Biden administration barely even addressing federal legalization of cannabis as they’re having that exact conversation (around psychedelics)?
MP: Along the same Biden lines, what is the legacy of “Reefer Madness?” How has the country’s thinking about cannabis changed that way, especially in the last 10 years, from your prism?
RB: I think the legacy of “Reefer Madness” is unquestionably, one hundred percent, the continuation of slavery. A lot has been written, including by a really wonderful writer named Michelle Alexander, formerly of the ACLU, about the war on drugs being ultimately, the new Jim Crow. When they abolished slavery, ultimately, the white man at that point said, “Well, we need to figure out a way to continue allowing slavery,” and this is one of the many ways in which they did that, going back to the 1930s with the first U.S. Drug Czar named Harry Anslinger, and of course, moving on to the ‘70s with the incredibly successful work of President Richard Nixon.
This was always meant to keep people of color without their power and behind bars, and they’ve been wildly successful in criminalizing plants and substances, so they’re ultimately treating issues of addiction and substance use as a crime, which it should have never been done, instead of treating it like a public health order, which is such a shame.
But in the last 10 years, of course, we’ve seen the end of cannabis prohibition, but we’ve only seen that at the state level, and that is not enough. So ultimately what we need to see is more movement at the federal level.
While cannabis is an addictive substance, it’s nowhere near as addictive as alcohol, as nicotine, as opioids. There’s not a high risk for abuse; rather, it’s a pretty moderate risk for abuse. That is what Biden has Health and Human Services and Attorney General Merrick Garland looking into. And it’s just such a waste of time because we should just be descheduling weed right now, and we should be moving to legalize it federally. Of course, the federal government isn’t known for moving fast.
Here we have more than 10 years of public health data showing us about so many of the positive impacts that cannabis legalization is having on some of these communities. Look at every single place where there has been any form of legalization, whether it’s medical or adult use, and none of those municipalities or states have seen an uptick in teen use. And you remember all the cries of, “What about the children?,” and prohibitionists successfully kept this illegal for so long, because they wanted to fear-monger and they wanted to make us afraid about what this would mean for our children in our communities.
And here we have 10 years of concrete public health data that shows that the children aren’t consuming at any higher rates than they were pre-legalization. It’s utterly ridiculous, and we do need significantly larger clinical trials and community studies done.
MP: You call yourself a ‘cannabis futurist.’ What do you foresee in the next 10 years and what’s exciting about everything you’re doing right now?
RB: Well, I think it was always pretty clear to me in the early days of covering weed that cannabis was always only the first domino. It was never about weed; it’s entirely about progressive drug policy reform and righting the wrongs of America’s broken drug policy, which is rooted in racism. And as an Indigenous human, it’s important for me to make sure that people understand why this was criminalized in the first place.
So I think in the next 10 years, we will continue to see more and more states legalizing weed. We’ll continue to see the path that was used that we know to work well: You know, they legalize medical, and then they legalize adult use, and then the community is like, “Oh, why didn’t we do this decades ago?”
And so, along with that, we’ll continue to see normalization, and that’s really powerful. Because again, 80 years of prohibition, 80 years of misinformation, that is a lot to kind of reprogram your mind. It’s almost like pushing control-alt-delete and moving past in that way of everything most people know about weed is wrong.
MP: What do you hear about Minnesota? Is it on your radar at all?
RB: I think people look at the Midwest as a legitimate barometer for where we truly are at. It’s one thing for the city and county of Denver, where my neighbors and I back in May of 2018, were the first city in the world to ever decriminalized psilocybin mushrooms. And it’s one thing for us to do that, and it’s one thing even for Ann Arbor to be bold and progressive and courageous.
However, I think most of the rest of the Midwest is an interesting bellwether that many throughout the industry, and the movement look at to say, “OK, but where are we really at?”
If it can happen in Minnesota, then it can happen in Texas, and then if it can happen in Texas, then it’ll happen everywhere. I think people are very much excited to see the progress happening out there, and hopeful that it’s a sign of more to come.