The Bush administration proved powerless against popularly led medical cannabis initiatives metastasizing across the country. And with Barack Obama’s landslide victory, and its hands-off approach to state reform, the topic is now wide open. California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and gubernatorial candidate Gavin Newsom have called for a dialogue on the subject. California State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano is sponsoring a bill this fall to legalize personal possession of small amounts of cannabis in California—a fact that, in a turn of events that would have been almost unimaginable in previous decades, has made him something of a media darling.
“My schedule for media is very heavy and it’s very diverse,” Ammiano says. “There’s so much media around every day and internationally that I can pick and choose.”
As for the coverage itself: a lot of it has been good, he says, “but it needs to get better. Certainly the Fox Network doesn’t really treat it with any kind of gravitas. Those people still have that puerile Cheech and Chong attitude. They don’t see it as public policy, they see it as something to tie to prostitution. There has been more serious discussion in the Wall Street Journal, [in] The Economist, [and among] people like Milton Friedman—and there have been very thoughtful editorials about it,” Ammanio says. And “CNN treated it in a more adult fashion.”
At the same time, though, the influence of network television is waning amid the rise of an old-style partisan press on the Internet. Just as “we’re seeing a rapid decline of straight media on electoral campaigns,” California political consultant Larry Tramutola points out, the Web is diversifying the conversation about marijuana. The debate “may be decided in the blogosphere,” Tramutola says. “It may be decided on informal networks.”
That shift means that the goal posts of the mainstream coverage of that debate have moved, as well, says Richard Lee, sponsor of Tax Cannabis 2010, a direct democracy initiative to legalize marijuana in California. “We’ve seen a big change in the media,” Lee says, “where for years we were the one whacko little quote at the end, and the law enforcement got the majority. Now it seems the opposite. We seem to be making the front page more than ever.” In fact, Lee says, “reporters keep telling us how difficult it is to find opposition quotes.”
Lee describes a recent appearance he made on Fox Business Channel. “Instead of debating somebody who was against legalization,” he says, “the person they had on there was just quibbling about how much money could be made when [marijuana] was legal. It’s like this professor somebody and they were like, ‘There’s lots of good reasons to legalize it, but I don’t think we’ll be getting as much money as some of the proposals say.’ I wasn’t even really debating the guy.”
Indeed, some of the billions of dollars of cannabis revenue have begun circulating into the legitimate economy, sobering the discussion for reporters amid record shortfalls in government revenue and a massive recession. In cash-strapped Oakland, voters just approved a medical pot tax by a margin of four to one. Furthermore, medical cannabis now comprises a significant percentage of print advertising at many urban weeklies.
“The Wall Street Journal is not going to joke about it if it’s real money,” Grim points out.
Still, change comes in increments. “People are seeing the reality of change on the ground when a shop opens up and the sky doesn’t fall,” Grim says. “It’s the change that begets change, because people’s fears are not matched by the reality of what’s happening.”
And one of the changes is journalistic—a shift in the terms of the legalization conversation itself. “I think editors are realizing that people want more honest, unbiased coverage of the issue,” Richard Lee puts it. “Newspapers are to a certain degree mirrors of our society. To the degree that our poll numbers [about marijuana] are up and more people than ever don’t think it should be illegal—the coverage reflects that.”