Exit Interview: The Cannabist's Ricardo Baca has a warning for marijuana lovers
America's relationship with cannabis hit a major milestone in 2013 when the Denver Post created The Cannabist and hired its first full-time weed editor Ricardo Baca. This Spring, Baca announced he's moved on from the seminal project. Today, we feature an edited Q&A with Ricardo about what's next for the major voice of weed journalism and what readers can expect from legalization in California and beyond.
GreenState: So -- everyone wants to know, Ricardo -- what are you doing next after starting The Cannabist?
Ricardo Baca: I am on my own and I'm starting a content agency primarily serving the cannabis industry. And the name of the agency is Grasslands.
And what we hope to do is really help cannabis businesses put their best foot forward. We're writing press releases and marketing copy. We're cleaning up web sites. We're ghost writing and managing blogs and content platforms.
Why now? The Cannabist is on a roll.
Late last year The Cannabist’s web traffic really started to surge pre-election and post-election. We started racking up numbers that were larger than High Times or Marijuana.com. Those were long-held goals of mine. I wanted to see if we could create an outlet new and from scratch and if we could become a legitimate source readers could rely on and in many ways we were able to do that.
And it helps too that even though I’d only started The Cannabist three years before I left, I’d been at the Denver Post for 15 years. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to create yet another platform for the Post – because I’d created a music festival and music blog before that -- but it was also time for me to make a move and to apply my entrepreneurial spirit to an endeavor I could more directly benefit from.
You saw Colorado enact legalization regulations and evolve. What don’t you think California businesses are prepared for?
Judging from a lot of people I’ve talked to in California I think there is a large segment of people in the industry who are not prepared for the onslaught of regulations to come.
If we're looking at what being state-legal meant a year ago and what it will mean a year from now, I have a bad feeling that a lot of these businesses are in for a rude awakening.
What is the chokepoints for the industry on the path to being regulated?
We certainly had our sticking points and lab-testing remains one of those. At least Colorado had the benefit of -- unlike pretty much any other market -- we were coming from a regulated medical market to a regulated recreational market. … What you guys are doing is just insanity – the regulating of two markets simultaneously.
One regulation people are worried about is the 100 mg limit for THC in an edible. What’s your take?
I do think the 100 mg limit makes a lot of sense on the recreational side. Clearly if you are a medical patient and you have a higher tolerance you can still find a 250 mg chocolate bite the size of your pinky nail. In the rec market, for public safety alone, limiting those edibles to 10 mg per serving makes plenty of sense and still gives people opportunities to buy a single product and share it and get extended use out of it if they have the kind of tolerance most of us have.
What should consumers anticipate or look forward to with California regulations?
Consumers should be excited. Right now they already have access to some of the greatest cannabis in the world, the most thoughtful, progressive and leading dispensaries in the world. What follows after this is having the guarantee of a regulated industry -- that just means that when a consumer is out buying an infused chocolate or slab of shatter or an eighth of Blue Dream a year and a half from now, they have certain guarantees in place that aren’t in place right now. … What regulations do to a market is they give consumers peace of mind.
You did really pioneering work on pesticides recalls.
I think pesticides are one of the most important conversations happening in legal cannabis right now. It’s a perfect example of the beauty of a regulated market.
Also, when I was buying medibles I noticed back in 2014 how much potency varies all over the place. When I did that test in 2013 which was part of Rolling Papers that was thrilling for me as consumer and journalism because I wanted consistent edibles; being able to play a small part in cleaning up the chemical make-up of cannabis was an honor.
Undoubtedly we are the most heavily regulated industry that I can name. I think the safety and good conscience that comes with those regulations make them worth it. Especially in these early days of legalization.
What’s Colorado have left to work on?
We are far from a perfect system. I have lot of respect for the Colorado model and clearly regulations in other localities too. One is a legitimate problem they need to fix, and the other problem might be manufactured as the next push against legalization.
The first being public consumption. Social use. This is an issue that has unfortunately been botched by the Colorado legislature. Here we are four years into recreational legalization and there’s still almost nowhere to go to legally consume it. I think it's embarrassing and I’m glad to see movement finally begin in the form of Initiative 300, which passed in Denver in November -- even though as you know the state liquor authority passed a measure immediately after 300 gained steam saying anywhere with a liquor license cannot host legal cannabis consumption. I think it's unfortunate. This is something that’s a lot easier to figure out than stuff they’ve already figured out. Inevitably we will be passed up by both California and Nevada. Hopefully we get our shit together.
Another one: the opposition is concerned about potency. I don’t know where any legitimate study is saying more potent cannabis or products are worse for our physical or mental health. But we are certainly starting to see the push against potent weed. There is a movement right now -- and there has been for six months -- to stop all sales of any cannabis product that has a higher THC level than 16 percent.
There was a referendum that was going to go on the ballot that was halted and also a state bill. So it’s been fascinating to watch that. They will start the conversation up again and this is part-fronted by a local activist group called Smart Colorado.
It's just a knee-jerk reaction. Their other tactics to stop legalization have turned out to be false. It was teen use, then road safety, and now they are grasping at straws and this is their next tactic.
You see a lot of pot journalism out there. Where is it coming up short? Where should readers be holding the media to account?
One area I’d like to see a lot more focus in this space is data journalism. The work Chris Ingraham is doing at The Washington Post is incredibly important. He's such a master of crunching numbers and stats and data, but I think we need more of that.
We need a lot more of it. He's primarily focusing on federal data sets and some of the largest state studies and we need to invest in data journalism in every legal market crunching these numbers to tell stories about sales trends as well as health trends.
We live in an age of unbelievable hype and fake news. Can you arm readers with some tools to see through this?
It’s about finding the voices you can trust and supporting those voices with your readership. … You’re not going to find unethical pay-for-play in the pages of The Cannabist or The Cannifornian or the San Francisco Chronicle or the Seattle Times.
To many writing about marijuana right now -- this is only a money-making enterprise. They’re not out to cover both sides of the issue, not out to tell you truly what the best vape pen or pot brownie recipe is. But they are going to direct you to somewhere that makes them money.
Did you have any fears about leaving journalism after 15 years. It used to be going into communications was considered ‘selling out’?
You’re right. I’ve watched so many colleagues leave for corporate communications and public relations or marketing gigs and while that used to mean something 15 years ago it means a lot less now just because the reality of print journalism has changed so dramatically. When I started at the Post 15 years ago there were 300-plus editorial employees. Now there are 95.
I am fucking terrified about the future of democracy and the future of journalism. I know there are many talented journalists working hard to cover what needs to be covered. I’ve always been a fan. Knowing what happens at the local level is massively important considering how big this country is. And when the corps of media covering state houses and city councils across the country has been decimated as it has been, that's not good news for either journalism or democracy.
Are we going to continue to see your work anywhere?
I'm working with the team behind Rolling Papers on a TV show and it's called “Subculture” -- we're pitching it right now and playing some interesting TV series type film festivals. I want to explore the culture of substances in different localities across the world. That's a lot of fun. We’ve been filming for that for the last couple months and have a sizzle [reel].
How has your life changed since being the face of The Cannabist?
Especially at cannabis events you always find people looking at you out of the corner of their eyes sometimes trying to figure out who you are. … I did just get a new car. I heard from a lot of people after “Rolling Papers” about my car. Now I’m driving a 2014 Subaru, up from 1990 Nissan Sentra two-door.