Greening out on data: Reflections by a journalist covering marijuana legalisation


In 2015, I served as a data editor for News21’s Weed Rush project. I helped a group of about 25 students with reporting projects that all fell within the broad topic of the changing situation for marijuana across the United States. Specifically, I helped students with any data element to their project. For some this was more important, for others it was not a main component.

We looked at a variety of aspects of marijuana, from public opinion polls and possession and trafficking arrest trends, to medical research, comparisons of legal provisions across states and social media sentiment analysis.

For some of the projects, larger or more complex data sets provided the backbone for the reporting. One such project looked at the "stop-and-frisk" data for New York City, to determine whether marijuana charges resulting from the tactic were more common in neighborhoods with greater minority composition. Another project looked at the location of dispensaries in Los Angeles to look for patterns of police raids on illegal dispensaries, and whether the raids pushed more dispensaries into areas with a lower socio-economic status.

Image: Weed Rush.

Before that, I spent a few years covering the implementation of Arizona’s medical marijuana system, from the time the state’s voter initiative passed in 2010, until shortly after the retail medical marijuana dispensaries began opening, around the beginning of 2013.

This period proved to be a fascinating time to cover the topic, mostly for the variety of angles it presented. On election night 2010, votes for the citizen initiative that legalized medical marijuana in the state – “Proposition 203” – trailed the votes against. That night and the next day, the measure appeared to have failed. But over the next few days, the margin of defeat slowly closed and then turned in favor of the proposition. By the time all the votes were counted, the measure won by 0.3 percentage points. The campaign’s spokesman had predicted the always-late-counted provisional ballots would eventually tip the vote in favor of the measure. 

Provisional ballots are used in the case that a voter has recently moved and not updated their registration, or when the voter goes to the wrong polling place, or when the voter was sent an early ballot in the mail, but either didn’t receive it or didn’t return it, or if the voter otherwise lost it. All of the reasons a provisional ballot would be used parallel the stereotype of marijuana users, which was both amusing and thought-provoking.

In the months that followed the narrow passage of the law, I wrote several articles, and I found this to be the most interesting period for the state system. During this time, several elected officials attempted to derail or delay the system’s implementation. Lawsuits were filed in state and federal courts. Though none were successful, it ended up delaying the program’s implementation at least a year.

Additionally, the period between a law’s passage and the time when the program goes into effect – typically called the “rule-making” process – is when Arizona’s Department of Health Services had to take the broad new law and write the nitty-gritty details. For instance, what conditions would qualify a patient for the program? How exactly would a patient become certified by the state, and how much would that cost? What exact conditions would be necessary to allow someone to cultivate marijuana themselves? What kinds of security measures would be required of dispensaries? What kind of product testing would be required? 

All of these and a slew of other details had to be drafted, opened to public comment, deliberated and then finally codified. This was a fascinating time, as many people came forward with input on these rules. From prosecutors to police, nursing associations to veterans’ groups, chambers of commerce and large employers, it seemed everyone had ideas about how the rules should come out.

Image: Weed Rush.

There were winners and losers, as some groups’ concerns were heard and incorporated and others’ weren’t. One that sticks out to me was the woman who said she was planning to become a large-scale hemp cultivator, because the rules had a loophole related to the definition of marijuana and the way the male and female versions of the plant (yes that’s right, the plants have a sex) were distinguished in the proposed rules. After we published a story about her, the Health Department changed the rules so as to not unintentionally create a hemp industry through vis-a-vis the medical system.

It was also really interesting during this early period to see the people who were trying to profit from the system before it even launched. Take, for instance, the mini-mall operations that sprang up offering to "train" would-be entrepreneurs in how they could become marijuana moguls. I sat in on one class for an article, and it was basically someone explaining the legalese of the law (something any journalist covering the topic could have done) and the "classes" were filled: 20-30 people per class, two classes per day, five days a week, $300 per head. Those were just the one-off guys looking to make quick money, and the guy we profiled wasn't hard to find. There are bigger, more corporate operations that like to move into a new state to set up marijuana "schools." 

There's one last thing that always nagged at me about the system here, and that is, how did the first batch get to the first customer? I always wondered whether there must be some origin which is illegal. How did someone get seeds, or plants, or the final product that didn't come from some kind of interstate transportation (a big no-no) or an otherwise illicit source? This gets at a larger issue, which is this is a black market turning to a... grey market, and when that happens, there's some odd stuff going on, at the very least, at the margins. 

Image: Katheirne Hitt.