Marijuana Moment is republishing the following press release with the permission of Grasslands.
‘I Am Absolutely Gutted’:
As The Denver Post Cuts Staffing to Groundbreaking Marijuana News Vertical The Cannabist, Site’s Founder and Original Editor Laments its Unjustified Collapse
Once Considered Among the Hottest Brands in New Media, Industry-Leading Marijuana Journalism Site The Cannabist No Longer Has a Dedicated Staff After The Denver Post Lays Off One-Third of its Newsroom
DENVER, Colorado—April 27, 2018—Embattled Colorado newspaper The Denver Post is no longer staffing its groundbreaking, first-of-its-kind marijuana news vertical The Cannabist, newsroom leadership confirmed Friday—a decision that is surprising cannabis and journalism circles today.
The Cannabist was founded in 2013 by veteran journalist Ricardo Baca as the world’s first adult-use cannabis market was about to launch in Colorado. As The Post’s first-ever Marijuana Editor, Mr. Baca and his team created the site from scratch and developed a robust national readership that appreciated the unique vertical’s journalism-first approach to covering the newly legal industry, the policy surrounding it and the culture that grew from legalization. Feature-length documentary Rolling Papers—a film “more about marijuana journalism than the big picture, and as such it’s a worthwhile endeavor,” wrote Chicago Sun-Times film critic Richard Roeper in his three-star review—documented both The Cannabist’s debut and the 2014 world premiere of state-regulated legal marijuana sales.
As the site’s founder and original editor-in-chief, journalist and thought leader Ricardo Baca was brokenhearted to hear the news.
“I am absolutely gutted today,” says Mr. Baca, who founded Grasslands: A Journalism-Minded Agency in early 2017 after resigning from The Post, where he worked as a reporter, critic and editor for 15 years. “We were so lucky to know The Cannabist as we did, and The Denver Post was lucky that we caught this lightning in a bottle during those historic days. We avoided the blind, pro-legalization activism of publications like High Times, and we also were an objective news source to counter prohibitionist misinformation that had plagued so much of the mainstream media’s irresponsible coverage of cannabis throughout the last eight decades.
“But it’s devastating to have helped create a news and culture site that changed the way so many people, journalists included, talked about marijuana—and to watch it fall apart, especially now that legal cannabis is increasingly becoming the law of the land. Now more than ever, we need serious journalists covering these state-legal marijuana markets, but this trend is not encouraging, as we’re also seeing staff reductions at the San Francisco Chronicle’s Green State vertical and elsewhere. If The Post’s most recent staff reduction broke my heart, which it unquestionably did, this news about The Cannabist losing its dedicated staff is thoroughly drubbing the rest of my internal organs with a meat tenderizer.
“These layoffs are putting The Cannabist on life support and destroying The Post’s ability to comprehensively cover Colorado, and it is entirely to blame on Alden Global Capital, the black-hearted hedge fund that owns Digital First Media and 100 American newspapers, including The Post. These vulture capitalists are literally hated throughout Denver, and while everyone from Gov. John Hickenlooper and Mayor Michael Hancock stands in support of The Post, we need to continue to let Alden Global Capital know that they are not welcome in Colorado, and they need to sell The Denver Post to a more responsible owner who will finally curb this undemocratic bloodletting.”
In less than two years under Mr. Baca’s leadership, The Cannabist was luring more readers than veteran publication High Times’ website, according to media-tracking organization comScore. In less than three years, Mr. Baca had grown the staff from just himself to a seven-person full-time team that included four editorial and three advertising employees.
But after Mr. Baca resigned from The Post in December 2016, the newspaper started making cuts to the vertical’s staff, nixing the General Manager advertising position and reassigning the remaining two Cannabist-focused sales staff in early 2017. That December, The Cannabist’s editorial staff was cut from four to three during a separate newsroom-wide staff reduction.
And in April 2018, after the newspaper’s editor told newsroom staff that it would be laying off one-third of its editorial employees, two Cannabist staffers announced they were leaving for other opportunities; later that month, Cannabist editor-in-chief Alex Pasquariello was told the paper was cutting editorial staffing to the site and that his position no longer existed.
The Denver Post has been in the national news recently because of a historic staff reduction and the resulting editorial-page public revolt against the newspaper’s hedge-fund ownership via a package of op-eds and columns. Mr. Baca returned to newsprint recently to pen one of the cover op-eds for The Post’sattention-grabbing opinion section.
Mr. Baca’s agency Grasslands is in early discussions with Post leadership about potentially purchasing The Cannabist should they decide to sell it.
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Grasslands is a journalism-minded agency, helping clients in a variety of industries with informed public relations, thoughtful content marketing, contextual social media, top-notch thought leadership work, impactful newsletter campaigns and compelling event execution. The Content Team, led by 20-year newspaper veteran Ricardo Baca, has nearly 45 years of top-level journalism experience at outlets including The Denver Post, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Rocky Mountain News, The Daily Beast and elsewhere. The Public Relations Team, led by 20-year New York City agency veteran Shawna McGregor, has nearly 35 years of high-level communications experience with clients including People magazine, IKEA North America, K12 Inc. and the American Wind Energy Association. Join the Grasslands conversation on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Amazon Endorses GOP-Led Bill To Federally Legalize Marijuana
Amazon, the second largest private employer in the U.S., is backing a Republican-led bill to federally legalize, tax and regulate marijuana.
The company’s public policy division said on Tuesday that it is “pleased to endorse” the legislation from Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC), who filed the States Reform Act in November as a middle-ground alternative to more scaled back GOP proposals and wide-ranging legalization bills that are being championed by Democrats.
We’re pleased to endorse @RepNancyMace's States Reform Act. Like so many in this country, we believe it’s time to reform the nation’s cannabis policy and Amazon is committed to helping lead the effort. https://t.co/g04Dn5KZq5
— Amazon Public Policy (@amazon_policy) January 25, 2022
“Like so many in this country, we believe it’s time to reform the nation’s cannabis policy and Amazon is committed to helping lead the effort,” the company, which previously expressed support for a separate, Democratic-led legalization bill, said.
Amazon has worked to adapt to changing marijuana policies internally as it’s backed congressional reform, enacting an employment policy change last year to end drug testing for cannabis for most workers, for example.
Months after making that change—and following the introduction of the States Reform Act—Mace met with Amazon and received the company’s endorsement, Forbes reported.
“They don’t want to sell it,” the freshman congresswoman said, adding that Amazon is primarily interested in backing the reform for hiring purposes instead of as a way to eventually sell cannabis. “It opens up the hiring pool by about 10 percent.”
— Rep. Nancy Mace (@RepNancyMace) January 25, 2022
Brian Huseman, Amazon’s vice president of public policy, said the bill “offers comprehensive reform that speaks to the emergence of a bipartisan consensus to end the federal prohibition of cannabis.”
Amazon’s drug testing decision was widely celebrated by reform advocates and industry stakeholders. Initially, the company only talked about ending the policy going forward. But it later disclosed that the policy change would also be retroactive, meaning former workers and applicants who were punished for testing positive for THC will have their employment eligibility restored.
The reason for the move away from marijuana testing was multifaceted, Amazon said at the time. The growing state-level legalization movement has made it “difficult to implement an equitable, consistent, and national pre-employment marijuana testing program,” data shows that drug testing “disproportionately impacts people of color and acts as a barrier to employment” and ending the requirement will widen the company’s applicant pool.
The GOP congresswoman’s bill already has the support of the influential, Koch-backed conservative group Americans for Prosperity.
The measure would end federal cannabis prohibition while taking specific steps to ensure that businesses in existing state markets can continue to operate unencumbered by changing federal rules.
Mace’s legislation has been characterized as an attempt to bridge a partisan divide on federal cannabis policy. It does that by incorporating certain equity provisions such as expungements for people with non-violent cannabis convictions and imposing an excise tax, revenue from which would support community reinvestment, law enforcement and Small Business Administration (SBA) activities.
Marijuana Moment first reported on an earlier draft version of the bill in November, and it quickly became apparent that industry stakeholders see an opportunity in the Republican-led effort.
The reason for that response largely comes down to the fact that there’s skepticism that Democratic-led legalization bills—including the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act that Amazon has also endorsed—will be able to pass without GOP buy-in. While Democrats hold majorities in both chambers, in addition to controlling the White House, the margins for passage are slim.
The MORE Act did clear the House Judiciary Committee in September, and a previous version passed the full House during the last Congress. Senate leadership is preparing to file a separate legalization proposal after unveiling a draft version in July.
Photo courtesy of Max Pixel.
Massachusetts Marijuana Tax Revenue Now Exceeds Alcohol By Millions
Massachusetts is officially collecting more tax revenue from marijuana than alcohol, state data shows.
As of December 2021, the state took in $51.3 million from alcohol taxes and $74.2 million from cannabis at the halfway point of the fiscal year.
Overall, Massachusetts has seen $2.54 billion in adult-use marijuana purchases since the market came online in November 2018. Regulators first reported that the state achieved the $2 billion sales milestone in September.
The news about cannabis overtaking alcohol in terms of tax revenue, which WCVB-TV first reported, is a welcome development for advocates who have been arguing that the plant is less harmful than liquor and could be used as a substitute.
Illinois also saw cannabis taxes beat out booze for the first time last year, with the state collecting about $100 million more from adult-use marijuana than alcohol during 2021.
States that have legalized marijuana have collectively garnered more than $10 billion in cannabis tax revenue since the first licensed sales started in 2014, according to a report released by the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) earlier this month.
And in those adult-use states, regulators are doing what they can to ensure that the tax dollars are effectively invested.
For example, Illinois is dedicating portions of tax revenue to mental health services, as well as local organizations “developing programs that benefit disadvantaged communities.” In July, state officials put $3.5 million in cannabis-generated funds toward efforts to reduce violence through street intervention programs.
California officials announced in June that they were awarding about $29 million in grants funded by marijuana tax revenue to 58 nonprofit organizations, with the intent of righting the wrongs of the war on drugs. The state collected about $817 million in adult-use marijuana tax revenue during the 2020-2021 fiscal year, state officials estimated last summer. That’s 55 percent more cannabis earnings for state coffers than was generated in the prior fiscal year.
Nearly $500 million of cannabis tax revenue in Colorado has supported the state’s public school system. That state brought in a record $423 million in marijuana tax dollars last year.
Banking Activity Increases In States That Legalize Marijuana, Study Finds
While marijuana businesses often struggle to find banks that are willing to take them on as clients due to risks caused by the ongoing federal prohibition of cannabis, a new study found that banking activity actually increases in states that legalize marijuana.
The research doesn’t make a direct connection between state-level marijuana reform and the increased activity, but it does strongly imply that there’s a relationship—even if the factors behind the trend aren’t exactly clear.
Researchers set out to investigate banking trends in states that have legalized cannabis, looking at bank regulatory filings with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) from 2011 to 2016. They found evidence that “banking activity (deposits and subsequent loans) increase considerably in legalizing states relative to non-legalizing states.”
That’s in spite of the fact that banks and credit unions run the risk of being penalized by federal regulators for working with businesses that deal with a federally controlled substance.
“While uncertainty can result in overly cautious behavior and hinder economic activity, we do not find evidence of this with cannabis laws and the banking industry,” the authors wrote in the new paper—titled, “THC and the FDIC: Implications of Cannabis Legalization for the Banking System.”
The study analyzed data from “150,566 bank-quarter observations from 6,932 unique banks located in 46 different states.” It found that deposits increased by an average range of 3.14-4.33 percent—and bank lending increased by 6.54-8.62 percent—post-legalization.
“Our results indicate that deposits and loans increased for banks after recreational cannabis legalization.”
Of course, it makes sense that legal states would see increased financial activity in the banking sector after opening a new market, even if only some banks choose to take the risk of working directly with cannabis businesses. The emerging marijuana industry also supports an array of ancillary firms and traditional companies that provide services to dispensaries and grow operations.
As of June 30, there were 706 financial institutions that had filed requisite reports saying they were actively serving cannabis clients. Thats up from 689 in the previous quarter but still down from a peak of 747 in late 2019.
But the question remains: why are some banks deciding to take on marijuana clients while others remain wary of federal repercussions?
The study authors—from the University of Arizona, Drexel University, San Diego State University and Scripps College—put forward two possibilities about why “the risk from regulatory uncertainty did not decrease banks’ willingness to accept deposits or make loans.”
The increase “may suggest that banks were either unconcerned about the potential risk associated with accepting cannabis related deposits or optimistic about the chances that regulations will adapt to the needs of legalizing states,” the paper reasons.
Confidence about working with a federally illegal industry may well have been bolstered in 2014 when the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) under the Obama administration issued guidance to financial institutions on reporting requirements for cannabis-related businesses.
The second option, optimism about federal reform, also seems possible. It was around the time that the bipartisan Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act was first introduced that there was a notable spike in financial institutions reporting that they have marijuana business clients.
In the years since, that legislation has been approved in some form five times in the U.S. House of Representatives, but it’s continued to stall in the Senate. In general, banks reporting marijuana accounts has remained relatively stable since 2019.
“Although many have speculated about the increased legal risks to banks, there is a lack of evidence for instances where banks are criminally prosecuted or lose their federally insured status,” the study states. “If these negative repercussions rarely happen, it makes sense that banks would not respond to the legislative uncertainty.”
“As more state regulators issue statements in support of banks and credit unions serving the cannabis industry, the financial institutions can become more optimistic about the chances that regulations will adapt in their favor with time,” the authors wrote.
Despite optimism for future reform that certain lawmakers have expressed, it doesn’t necessarily take the sting out of the latest failed attempt to secure protections for banks that choose to work with state-legal cannabis businesses as part of a large-scale defense bill.
A pro-reform Republican senator recently slammed Democrats for failing to advance marijuana banking reform despite having a congressional majority and control of the presidency.
For what it’s worth, the secretary of the U.S. Treasury Department recently said that freeing up banks to work with state-legal marijuana businesses would “of course” make the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) job of collecting taxes easier.
With respect to the SAFE Banking Act, a bipartisan coalition of two dozen governors recently implored congressional leaders to finally enact marijuana banking reform through the large-scale defense legislation.
A group of small marijuana business owners also recently made the case that the incremental banking policy change could actually help support social equity efforts.
Rodney Hood, a board member of the National Credit Union Administration, wrote in a recent Marijuana Moment op-ed that legalization is an inevitability—and it makes the most sense for government agencies to get ahead of the policy change to resolve banking complications now.