Marijuana laws are changing rapidly these days, so much so that even specialized news organizations solely dedicated to tracking cannabis policy sometimes have a hard time making sense of reforms.
Coverage this week by The Cannabist and Marijuana Business Daily provides a perfect example.
After California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) vetoed legislation that would have enacted new crimes prohibiting smoking or vaping tobacco and other substances on state coastal beaches and in state parks, the two news organizations reported the news with inaccurate headlines that could influence some readers to unknowingly break the law.
“California governor OKs marijuana use at beaches, state parks,” Marijuana Business Daily reported.
“Californians can smoke and vape weed in parks, on beaches, decides gov,” read The Cannabist’s headline of an Associated Press story.
While the reach of the legislation Brown vetoed did extend to cannabis as well as tobacco (“lighted or heated tobacco or plant product intended for inhalation, whether natural or synthetic, in any manner or in any form”), the fact is that public marijuana consumption is not currently permitted in California.
Brown’s veto of the proposed bills does not change that.
California marijuana policy experts say that the false headlines in Marijuana Business Daily and in The Cannabist, which is owned by The Denver Post, could have dangerous consequences.
“The harm is that people will smoke or ingest cannabis in state beaches and parks, thinking that the governor gave the go-ahead to such public ingestions by vetoing those proposed bills,” Omar Figueroa, an attorney who handles cannabis cases, told Marijuana Moment in an interview. “Mistake of law is no defense.”
Brown, who vetoed similar legislation last year, said in a statement that the proposals were too broad. “If people can’t smoke on a deserted beach, where can they? There must be some limit to the coercive power of government.”
As it stands, with his veto, people can still smoke or vaporize tobacco on those shorefronts, subject to individual beach policies and local codes. But as was the case before, and despite the inaccurate headlines in some outlets, they still can’t consume cannabis there.
That said, marijuana reform advocates were nonetheless relieved that Brown vetoed the bills.
“If smoking were banned on beaches statewide, we would likely see increased enforcement, which would result in more cannabis consumers, including medical patients, cited for public consumption,” Ellen Komp of California NORML told Marijuana Moment.
Dale Gieringer, also of California NORML, agreed that the legislation would’ve put marijuana consumers at greater risk. “By flagging all smoking (and vaporization) as illegal, it would have increased the likelihood of citation for [cannabis] users, who can otherwise avoid detection by discreetly acting like tobacco smokers,” he said, adding that the fines they could face would also have increased.
Alex Pasquariello, editor of The Cannabist, declined to comment for this story, citing the fact that the organization’s post consisted of an Associated Press story. He did not reply to a follow-up question specifically about the headline his organization chose for the story or its image caption reading, “Californians will be allowed to smoke weed on beaches, due to a veto by Governor Jerry Brown of a bill that would have banned the behavior.”
Chris Walsh, the vice president for editorial & strategic development at Marijuana Business Daily, also said that his organization’s story was largely comprised of Associated Press content. But he did acknowledge that his team erred in framing the story.
“Our editorial team has taken another look at it and we agree that the headline and brief need to be reframed and clarified,” he said. “The piece itself was mostly from the Associated Press, but we are looking into it now to get some additional information so we can clarify as needed. We realize now that the headline could be interpreted differently than intended and we will modify accordingly.
This story was updated to include reaction from Marijuana Business Daily and California NORML.