It may look strange to see recipes for pot zucchini bread next to basketball scores, but that’s what is happening now at the Denver Post. Ricardo Baca, the former music and entertainment editor of the newspaper, was officially named their marijuana editor last month. His new gig has led to him embarking on a media tour in the last few weeks, appearing on CNN, The O’Reilly Factor and The Colbert Report, with the faux news anchor jokingly asking him if he was a cop. Even Saturday Night Live jumped into the fray, noting that the Post “announced that they’re looking for a marijuana editor for their website. They have one. They’re just looking for him.”
But as Colorado becomes one of two states to legalize the sale of recreational marijuana in just a few days, Baca believes that pot news is just as legitimate as any other section in the paper. He explained to The Fix why he isn’t surprised about the jokes related to his job, what some of the biggest weed-related issues are in Colorado now and why he isn’t fazed by his critics.
How did the Denver Post decide you were the most qualified person to be their marijuana editor? Is it safe to say you’re a weed enthusiast?
I actually don’t smoke pot because it just doesn’t work for me, but I do eat it occasionally. But they mainly hired me because they felt that I had a strong history of writing features and news. I took over their entertainment section two years ago and gave it a big overhaul, and also created the Underground Music Showcase 12 years ago. It started as one night with four bands and became similar to South by Southwest 10 years later, with 350 bands and venues. I also founded a blog called Reverb which now has 50 freelancers. I think they liked that I had a history of creating an event and an experience and a content source.
This new position has been late-night fodder on a lot of shows and you were recently on The Colbert Report. Are you surprised that it’s become such a punchline?
They actually mentioned the job to me right before it was mentioned on Leno and SNL. But even before it was announced that I was the editor, I was aware it would be a punchline. Pot is still so incredibly taboo throughout the world and we find humor in the profane. But because we’ve lived with medicinal marijuana for so long now in Colorado and legal recreational use for a year, not to mention the legal retail pot shops we’re getting ready for in January, the jokes aren’t as funny and don’t carry the same punch here that they do elsewhere.
But when the biggest daily newspaper in the region announces a weed editor exactly a month before retail pot shops open, it makes sense that it would be a popular subject. If you turn on a cable network, it seems like Colorado is on every day. This is one of the biggest news stories of the year and possibly the decade when all is said and done.
Is this section of the paper going to be more news-oriented on issues related to pot or are you hoping to make it lighter?
The thrust has changed. It was originally news and culture and now we’re going heavy on the culture. We made the decision that our section of the paper should be about culture, while the web version of the marijuana section will be more news. When we launch, we’ll have a piece out of Washington and a piece out of Uruguay. We’ll look at how laws differ in Colorado and Washington and even in Uruguay. One example is that Colorado retail laws allow you to have up to a certain amount of marijuana on you even as a tourist, but tourists in Uruguay will still be forbidden to smoke pot.
A lot of weed culture is the same across the world in terms of how we partake, whether it’s a concert or group of friends at home. But aspects like buying weed are specific not only to the city or town, but even down to the dispensary. We want to look at the culture of cannabis outside of our state, but we do take pride in being from Denver. We’re not here to say if legal marijuana is good or bad, but it’s a part of our state and a part of life here that needs to be reported on and addressed.
What are some of the biggest issues in Colorado related to weed now?
Drug testing and employment is fascinating. How strange is it that you can legally smoke by state law and yet be fired by your employer for it? (Editor’s note: The Denver Post is adding marijuana to a list of substances that employees are barred from using while on the job.) That’s been a big issue here for four years. City council also ruled last week that you can smoke weed on your front porch. Granted, that’s only Denver, but various cities and townships decided they needed to be more specific on the terminology of their own laws after that ruling. There’s also a yellow light in place for banks to work with marijuana businesses, which is currently forbidden because banks are federally regulated and it’s still a Schedule I drug.
But what I’ve found interesting is that even if you’re talking about your classic stoner that lives in their mom’s basement, they’re still very curious about legalization efforts around the globe and other news about this subject. I’m shocked when someone reaches out and asks my opinion on something as dry as federal banking related to dispensaries.
Do you see the marijuana section of the Denver Post evolving into things like covering breaking news in the middle of the night or will it be difficult to round up enough writers for that?
We have 10 freelancers right now and will likely be at a dozen by launch. I would love to see us match Reverb in terms of having 50 freelancers or more. Covering breaking news at 1:00am would be ideal, but I don’t see that happening for at least six months or a year. But since we’re looking at a culture of cannabis, people will be covering Wu-Tang Clan or Yonder Mountain String Band on New Year’s at 1:00am. Art and music and television will be an important part of the site.
You’ve also spoken about looking to hire a pot critic. How do you respond to critics who say having a marijuana section or a weed critic glorifies and encourages pot use?
Bill O’Reilly has already said that on his show three or four times now. Our talking about what quality herb is out there is not promoting it. It’s no different from wine or whiskey being distilled from our office two miles away. If we review a Belgium brew, we’re not telling people to get drunk and hooked on it. This is a legal substance and we’re providing a journalistic, educated discussion on this from an intelligent perspective. There will be pushback and there has been anger, but we’re not encouraging or glorifying marijuana use.
Do you see Colorado being a template for other states that are considering legalizing marijuana?
Inevitably, that’s going to happen. If you look at the way marijuana has been regulated in Washington and Colorado, it’s amazing how dissimilar the processes were. Washington’s approach was more academic and Colorado’s was more governmental. For example, Colorado adopted vertical integration, which means businesses have to be involved in the growing, processing and selling of pot in order to get a license. My understanding is that Washington didn’t do that. If Illinois or Oregon vote on this in the next election, my guess is they’ll send teams out to see how Washington and Colorado did it and what works for them.
It’s a crazy big subject. I’m the first to recognize that I have so much to learn still. I’m just thrilled to have a great team of writers on my side for this project.
McCarton Ackerman is a regular contributor to The Fix. He last interviewed Artie Lange.