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How to write about weed without sounding high

Surveying the past, present, and future of marijuana journalism.

“The caramel-chocolate flavored candy bar looked so innocent, like the Sky Bars I used to love as a child.”

So begins arguably the most culturally important piece of cannabis journalism in the twenty-first century, in which The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd went neither low nor slow with a THC-infused chocolate bar, causing her to spend eight hours “in a hallucinatory state,” thinking she had literally died. Dowd’s 2014 column on the experience — unfortunately titled “Don’t Harsh my Mellow, Dude” — became a viral hit. With cannabis having just been legalized in Colorado, anti-pot crusaders pointed to Dowd’s experience as proof of the many dangers of recreational cannabis, while the pro-pot folks mostly mocked her for greening out.

As a piece of either journalism or criticism it had almost nothing to teach the reader, other than to read the label of whatever you are about to eat. But Dowd’s column was still historically significant. It was one of the first pieces of cannabis journalism in the age of legalization to reach the type of popular audience that the Times commands, and it highlighted one of the implications of legalization: The media was going to have to figure out how to write about weed. Judging by Dowd’s column, it was clear there were going to be some growing pains.

Four years later, the media is still dealing with those growing pains. By the end of the year, more than 100 million people will live in jurisdictions where it’s legal to get stoned. As cannabis becomes increasingly available to the adult population, an evolution in the way the media thinks and writes about cannabis — and by extension, the way the public conversation forms around it — is underway. A new generation of journalists who write about the cannabis industry are overhauling what many saw as the activist, stoner fixations of the genre’s forefathers, and trying to develop a new genre of cannabis journalism and criticism that carries the stature of its counterparts in the food and travel industries. But at its core it is about one, bigger question: how do you talk about weed without sounding like an idiot?

The first issue of High Times.

The first issue of High Times.

Cannabis journalism is not a new industry. In 1974, Thomas King Forçade founded High Times magazine using money that he’d earned smuggling pot into the United States. Initially, he had meant it as a parody of Playboy. The traditional centerfold spot was occupied not by a naked model, but a pot plant, treated with similar sexual overtones.

But that first tongue-in-cheek issue touched a nerve, and sold more than 500,000 copies. The magazine quickly shed its satirical aims and began to see itself as a serious cultural institution, at the forefront of the pro-cannabis movement. The magazine came to feature major writers like Hunter S. Thompson, William S. Burroughs, and Charles Bukowski, among others, and Forçade saw the magazine as also having a duty to teach. Many of the issues included information that would help people grow their own cannabis, and it became a sort of handbook to subversion for a certain type of pot-smoker.

High Times became the ur-text of the cannabis journalism industry but it spoke to, and identified with, the hippie culture of the 1970s. By the second half of the decade, the hippie movement had begun to peter out, and their influence on the cultural moment had, for the most part, waned. In the cannabis world, however, there were movements supporting decriminalization and medical uses. High Times tapped into the politics of this hippie culture by channeling the sort of stoned libertarianism that deeply distrusted the authority of the state. For a cannabis magazine, this was a gold mine: issues in the late 1970s regularly included stories about how to smuggle pot into the country, along with lengthy stories about alleged CIA mind control plots.

After Forçade killed himself in 1978, the magazine leaned heavily into its underground aesthetic. By the end of the 1980s, High Times was regularly running issues that were “filled with conspiracy stories of deep political events, and incredible forays in counterculture history,” said Steve Hager, who edited the magazine from 1987 to 2013, in an interview with The Nation in 2014.

By the 1990s, the push to legalize medical cannabis was picking up steam, and a new generation of emerging pro-pot advocates were looking to distance themselves from that boomer-esque image. In 1995, Marc Emery — the so-called “Prince of Pot” who was extradited from Canada to the United States in 2010 for selling seeds — founded British Columbia’s Cannabis Culture magazine, which saw itself as a major force in the then-burgeoning legalization movement. “A lot of the early activists in the United States didn’t have a platform to reach an audience,” Emery’s wife Jodie Emery, who served as an editor for the magazine in the 2000s, told The Outline. “High Times wasn’t that.”

Cannabis Culture magazine dedicated itself to advocating for the legalization of cannabis. Through the 2000s, the two magazines were the twin pillars of the weed media world. “It was a wonderful, beautiful time, because nobody else was writing about cannabis,” said Emery. “We were a big fish in a small pond.” But significant though they were, their cultural impact outside the community was negligible, and their pro-pot stance hadn’t made a serious impact on the way cannabis was covered. “In 2005, 2006, getting any marijuana in the news was the goal, even if it was negative,” said Emery. It was only “in recent years, probably since 2012, 2013, people started approaching it like its something you can report on.”

But that meant that the way cannabis media conceived of itself would have to change. While the idea of writing about cannabis wasn’t new, reporting on the industry objectively became something that reporters needed to learn how to do. “Cannabis Culture approached it as activists,” said Solomon Israel, who has run The Leaf News, the Winnipeg Free Press cannabis-focused vertical since last year. “They could just sort of blatantly say what they were about. I can’t do that. I have to try to maintain some sort of credibility.”

“For people that smoke so much cannabis, there’s a serious lack of creativity.”
Jake Browne, weed critic

There are challenges with that. Balancing the interests of the average news reader and a reader who is likely to be reading about cannabis — and in many respects, they are still different audiences — can be a difficult task, journalistically speaking. “I’m still trying to find that balance, to tell you the truth,” said Israel. “It’s easier in articles that are designed for people who know nothing.”

Beyond reporting on news within the cannabis industry, widespread legalization has prompted the media to try to develop pot criticism as a valid genre of writing. In 2014, Jake Browne became a bit of a media darling after he was hired by The Denver Post as the paper was launching The Cannabist, a vertical dedicated to covering the legal weed industry in Colorado. The hire signalled a change of pace in cannabis media. In reviewing strains, Browne attempted to define a methodology for pot writing that others could emulate. Almost every review he does pairs cannabis, in some way, with an experience separate from smoking. It’s a way to give readers a reference point for what they’re reading, he said. “Ultimately cannabis reviews need to be focused on experience,” Browne told The Outline.

He tried to draw from the tenets of other genres, like food and wine criticism, to inform his writing. “Cannabis needs to be careful not to go the way of wine where it’s more about your style, or including these esoteric descriptions as opposed to cutting to the core of what a strain should be,” he said. There are plenty of stoner-focused strain reviews, but very few that told stories that moved beyond the pot itself. “The idea won’t be that we reinvent cannabis; it will be that we reinvent the way we tell the story.”

When journalists write about cannabis, the focus is overwhelmingly on how it treads on both sides of the law. That central tension — and the way it brings characters who are manifest from the illicit drug world into the light of day — has emerged as a literary crutch, the source of most (if not all) of the drama. There are no shortage of articles like Jason Fagone’s “The Willy Wonka of Pot” (capers, of one sort or another, with characters who tread in the seedy underbelly of the illegal cannabis world) or like Brett Popplewell’s “The Big Smoke” (pot, abstracted as a matter of dollars and cents). In rare cases, the craft of writing about cannabis has been done more artfully, as in John Jeremiah Sullivan’s account of involving pot-smoking in the feat of endurance that is Disney World.

But finding good pot writing has historically felt much like a needle and haystack problem. As cannabis has become more ubiquitous, it has generated more writing by people who see it as a novelty worth writing about simply because it is new, and not because it is actually interesting to them. Try to find the High Times pieces by Bukowski, Burroughs, Thompson, and the other beatnik- and gonzo-era writers, and you’ll see how they’ve been mostly left out of the New Journalism canon. Jodie Emery, who was for a time an editor of a magazine built on cannabis journalism, now struggles to name a single memorable piece from the genre. “For people that smoke so much cannabis,” said Browne, “there’s a serious lack of creativity.”

In 2018, there still isn’t a great deal of serious pot criticism being published, but that seems to be changing as a new form of cannabis journalism emerges. Last year, David Weiner and Verena von Pfetten founded Gossamer, which bills itself as a magazine “for people who also smoke weed.” The pair met about a decade ago while they were working at the Huffington Post, and agreed that as pot had gone mainstream, media simply hadn’t kept up. “Everything was so cannabis-focused, weed-focused, the actual plant,” said Weiner. “Not much was about just appealing to the person who smokes pot.”

Promotional pamphlet from Gossamer.

Promotional pamphlet from Gossamer.

Many of the pieces in Gossamer don’t even mention pot, and interviews with people who are advocates for pot use rarely touch on cannabis itself. It’s an attempt to bring cannabis and journalism together in a way that felt less “gimmicky,” as all too often, writers present cannabis use as a novelty in and of itself, rather than just an aspect of life. The idea behind Gossamer, said von Pfetten, is that cannabis can serve not as the end point, but rather “the entry point for covering all the things that are of interest to our audience. I think people are really taking a second look at the industry.” (Similar glossy magazines devoted to marijuana such as Mary, Broccoli, and Push have also hit the market.)

As idiosyncratic their approach might be, it is certainly innovative in the cannabis space, and reflects some desire to define the genre. Few writers have gained any cachet as pot critics, ala a Pete Wells or a Robert Sietsema, and those that do tend to be popular only within other cannabis circles. The consequence of that is that nobody really talks about cannabis in the same way that they can talk about food and wine — that is, as forms of consumption onto which we map our very human and cultural differences.

“Food or alcohol is just an entry point to someone setting the scene, or talking about their life, or what it’s actually evocative of,” said Weiner. Perhaps optimistically, von Pfetten seems to think that cannabis journalism can go even further, and tap into something deeper and more intimate. “Sharing a joint is a much more intimate experience,” said von Pfetten. “Some of our closest friends or best memories or intimate moments have come from sharing a joint with someone.”

That, as people who use cannabis tend to know, is mostly true. More than alcohol and cocktails — a world in which entire magazine empires are genetically rooted — cannabis is a conduit for outlandish, funny, insightful, and often downright dumb ideas; often, those are the same things that make good writing, well, good. Like food and drinks, cannabis is a rich source of inspiration because it is personal. And with that personal aspect, you have the building blocks for writing that goes beyond reviewing, laws, and industry. What, after all, could be more personal than the things we put inside ourselves, to change the way we feel about ourselves?

What that looks like, specifically, hasn’t been totally worked out, and the onus will fall on all sorts of people — writers, editors, readers alike. But at the core of it, good weed writing of the future will learn to move beyond cannabis as a story in and of itself, and will focus more on the way people experience it differently, and the way that experience tracks with all the other things that make life meaningful. Sullivan’s story about pot at Disney Land is good, because it’s not about pot, but rather about how your own experience of joy exists alongside your children’s. If cannabis journalism is ever to take off, it will be on the realization that we can tell those stories alongside the story of cannabis itself.

Kieran Delamont is a journalist from Canada who writes about cannabis, politics, and other miscellany.