Who Gets to Tell Cannabis Stories? Why Journalism and Cannabis Marketing Need Diverse Voices

From the far-reaching consequences that the War on Drugs continues to inflict on minority communities to a lack of diversity that’s particularly pervasive at the most lucrative leadership levels, cannabis has yet to shake a long history of racism. And while media coverage of cannabis has not failed to note the numerous inequalities that the industry continues to face, disparities in journalism, marketing and PR are part of the cannabis industry’s social equity problem, too.

Less often discussed is who gets to tell the story of modern cannabis—and which journalists are actively working to expand our understanding of this plant and its place in America’s legislative, cultural and carceral landscape.

It’s no secret that the Fourth Estate has long been a male-dominated field, from the highest editorial positions to the most entry-level gumshoe reporters. While more women than men currently earn journalism degrees, a 2021 study by the Women’s Media Center found that 65% of bylines and similar credits are attributed to male journalists across print and digital media, wire news and television broadcasts. And according to a 2021 study by the Reuters Institute, the numbers are even starker on racial parity in journalism—just 18% of top editors in the United States identified as non-white in the study sample. 

That has certainly had an impact on the way cannabis has been covered over time—or hasn’t been, in the case of all the countless rejected pitches and spiked stories that never made it into publication. After all, the value of diversity in media and publishing is that a greater variety of stories are told from a wider breadth of experience, as Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spotlighted in her 2009 TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story.”

How different would our understanding of cannabis be if newsrooms were more diverse decades ago? What if more journalists of color had published reports about the effects of the systemically racist War on Drugs and its enforcement in publications with majority-white readership? If we had more cannabis stories told from a perspective rooted in the BIPOC experience, would policy change have occurred sooner? These are impossible questions to answer, but they still spark the speculative imagination.

Cannabis Journalists of Color

There are hints of what could have been. Consider, for example, the Pulitzer Prize-winning multipart series on the international heroin supply chain, to which Black investigative journalist Les Payne contributed for Newsday. In 1975, the same year the series was published as a book-length collection, Payne went on to serve as one of the co-founders of the National Association of Black Journalists, whose members continue to do innovative work reporting on cannabis amongst other beats. 

Or take a look at the work done by the team behind Say Brother, a Boston-based public television program that turned to more national topics after producer John Slade joined the program in the early 1970s. Under his guidance, coverage expanded to explore the impact of U.S. drug policy on Black Americans, and also on how that impact was filtered through the pop-cultural lens in Blaxploitation films like Superfly.

Today, there are many more cannabis journalists of color telling vital stories locally and nationally online, in print, on podcasts and other platforms. Editorial interest has also increased as decriminalization and destigmatization have made it less perilous to hinge one’s career on covering a federally illegal substance. Not only are more journalists like Tauhid Chappell doing necessary, substantive reportage in the cannabis space, they are also working to help other minority journalists build their careers, including work focused on cannabis policy and culture.

Women of BIPOC communities are breaking multiple barriers at once as they step into cannabis journalism, as Lyneisha Watson did when she started the High Folks series for High Times—she’s the first Black woman to have a regular column for the publication. Writers such as Syreeta McFadden are part of a rich tradition of groundbreaking Black female journalists, including Alice Allison Dunnigan, Ida B. Wells and Ethel Payne, all of whom reported on some of the most important Civil Rights issues of their day—from the White House press corps and beyond.

As journalist Errin Haines, who served as the national writer on race for The Associated Press from 2017-2020, once observed on that tradition: “Black women have been telling the truth about America for a long time. As a Black woman in journalism, my obligation is no less than that. And I do that on the shoulders of all of the women who’ve done that work before me and with me now,” as she told Glamour in 2020

The form those diverse cannabis stories take are also more varied than ever, as are the backgrounds of the storytellers. For example, Donnell Alexander has not only built a strong body of cannabis reportage for publications like The Guardian, Insider and Cannabis Law Report, he also served as co-host for the WeedWeek podcast from 2018 to 2020. Hip-hop star Fab Five Freddy dug into the history of prohibition for the Netflix documentary Grass Is Greener in 2019, while rapper Nas executive produced and narrated Smoke: Marijuana + Black America, a news special for the BET network.

Cannabis Storytelling in the Marketing and PR Space

Now cannabis-focused marketing and public relations are providing yet another avenue for public education, community-building and storytelling. And unlike the long history of male voices dominating mainstream journalism, the marketing and PR industries have become female-led sectors. In an about-face from the Mad Men days, public relations now sees some 61.3% of positions filled by women (or 59.7% when you add in statistics from the advertising sector).

However, marketing and PR still have a long way to go on racial parity, with an overwhelming 82.6% of advertising employees identifying as white. That creates even more incentive for diversity in hiring and talent retention, paving the way for further advances in who gets to create and contribute to cannabis messaging in legal markets, from branding strategies to award-winning ad campaigns to PR pitches to thought leadership.

Building a More Inclusive Future for Cannabis Storytelling

While both the media and advertising industries continue working to diversify their ranks, professional development events have been popping up to better educate journalists and PR professionals on how to cover cannabis in a more nuanced and inclusive way. The Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, for example, hosted its first cannabis media workshop at WHYY News in 2019. Even the oft-conservative academic realm is digging in, as with the University of California, Berkeley’s cannabis journalism course and a Temple University class titled “Marijuana in the News,” among others. 

The greater availability of cannabis-specific journalism and marcomms education will help a new generation of students of all identities consider this as a viable and important field on which it’s worth building a career. And if, like more than a few journalists before them, those J-school graduates eventually make the leap into marketing and PR, they’ll come with a richer perspective on how to tell cannabis stories without leaving marginalized communities behind.

Celebrating the Queer History of Cannabis Culture in Pride Month, and All Throughout the Year

As cannabis businesses roll out their Pride Month ad campaigns and sponsorships this June, it might look like just another case of rainbow-washing. After all, companies from all sorts of industries—from fast fashion to food and beverage giants to financial companies—have tried to capitalize on allyship with the queer community, with varying degrees of authenticity. 

But the ties between the cannabis industry and the LGBTQIA+ community go far deeper than rainbow-colored rolling papers or a fresh bowl of Banana Hammock. In fact, we might not have legal medical cannabis in a vast majority of the United States if it weren’t for the work of gay and lesbian activists over the past 50 years.

How LGBTQ Activists Agitated for Medical Cannabis

Missing from much of the discourse about diversity and inclusion in cannabis is the role that LGBTQIA+ activists have played in ending prohibition. Just a year after the 1969 Stonewall Riots, which Pride Month commemorates, the United States outlawed cannabis via the Controlled Substances Act

In 1976, however, a straight man named Robert C. Randall became the first legal medical cannabis patient in the country post-federal prohibition when he successfully won the right to use cannabis to treat his glaucoma. The case directly contributed to setting a precedent for classifying cannabis as a Compassionate IND, or what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration terms the “compassionate use of [an] investigational new drug.” That Compassionate IND designation for medical cannabis would come to the fore just a few years later when a new health crisis emerged in the 1980s—the rise of a deadly disease later identified as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV / AIDS).

As the political and medical establishment turned their backs on the epidemic first identified among gay men, the queer community and its allies developed their own compensatory networks of care, including the distribution of medical cannabis. Smokables and edibles were used to treat everything from HIV symptoms themselves to the side effects of azidothymidine, better known as AZT—an HIV-AIDS medication that was also classified as a Compassionate IND, just like cannabis. 

1991 Castro Street Party © David Prasad / Creative Commons ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Early Medical Cannabis Pioneers

Many of those pioneers who established care networks and made medical cannabis not only legal but accessible were based in San Francisco, one of the most prominent centers of queer culture in the country. Dennis Peron, for example, is sometimes called “the godfather of medical marijuana.” He spent years selling cannabis underground in the Castro District and connecting AIDS patients with medical cannabis, including his late partner, Jonathan West. Later, he went on to found San Francisco’s first public dispensary in the early 1990s and co-authored California’s historic ballot initiative Proposition 215 for medical cannabis use. Prop 215 co-author and San Francisco denizen Mary Jane Rathbun earned the nickname “Brownie Mary” for her clandestine distribution of thousands of infused edibles to those living with HIV and AIDS.

Queer activists led the way in other major California cities, too. Scott Imler, a Methodist pastor and another Prop 215 co-author, opened the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Cooperative, which was the first dispensary in LA County. Los Angeles Black Gay Pride Association founder Paul Scott also served as an early board member of the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Club and founded the first medical cannabis dispensary in Inglewood.

Couple Michael Koehn and David Goldman also became involved in cannabis advocacy in San Francisco during the AIDS crisis, inspired by Rathbun’s work. They have continued to serve as medical cannabis advocates through the Brownie Mary Democratic Club as well as San Francisco’s Medical Cannabis Task Force

“The genesis of the cannabis movement, gay people served at the heart of it,” Koehn told the The Orange County Register in 2021. Today, Koehn and Goldman are an all-too-rare pair of gay elders who survived the AIDS crisis and have seen plant medicine become legally available across the country, starting with California in 1996. 

LGBTQIA+ Friendly Marketing for Cannabis Companies Year Round

Some early advocates for legal cannabis have been honored with namesake strains, from Jack Herer to Ed Rosenthal and Michka Seelinger-Chatelain. But many of the LGBTQIA+ advocates who helped pave the way for legal cannabis aren’t exactly household names, even in cannabis-friendly circles. 

While there isn’t a hot-selling line of official Brownie Mary edibles or Peron-branded pinners (yet), the queer community continues to influence and intersect with cannabis culture in ways large and small. From drag queens like La Ganja Estranja and YouTube personality The Gay Stoner to the Queer Cannabis Club debut at Aspen Gay Ski Week in 2022 and the founding of publications dedicated to queer cannabis culture like Buds Digest, cannabis has never been so openly queer. 

More and more companies are embracing implicit or explicitly queer branding like Cann, Sonder, Rythm and Kush Queen (the latter even makes Pride-branded CBD lube). Even more are proudly embracing their LGBTQIA+ team members, from Drew Martin and Madame Munchie to Peak Extracts and Boulder Creek Technologies. Still, the cannabis industry can always do more to honor its queer legacy. 

Authentic PR narratives and strategic partnerships are a prime opportunity to celebrate Pride throughout the year and educate new consumers about the role LGBTQIA+ activists continue to play in the fight for federal legalization. San Francisco’s Apothecarium dispensary, for example, proudly features an art gallery dedicated to Mark Estes, one of the victims of the AIDS epidemic who was well known in the Castro in the 1990s. Others like The People’s Dispensary, which operates in California, New Mexico and Illinois, have an explicit mission to create a safe and inclusive space not only for queer cannabis consumers, but also BIPOC and other marginalized groups.

An attendee of a Pride party co-sponsored by Grasslands

Even if a cannabis company isn’t queer-owned or explicitly LGBTQIA+ branded, there are other ways to signal allyship. When in doubt, follow the lead of queer cannabis brands, whether it’s donating a portion of proceeds to organizations which offer support to the queer and trans communities, emphasizing intersectionality or accessibility in messaging, as well as featuring diverse models and inclusive language in collateral. 

Don’t be afraid to celebrate the individual identities of your team members (if everyone involved consents) or promote community events, like parades and fundraisers, in line with your brand’s values. Speak to your customers as they speak to one another and acknowledge what priorities they share with your brand.

After all, stoner stereotypes—often rooted in white, male, heterosexual humor—are becoming more and more things of the past. As more people try cannabis for the first time or reconnect with weed after years or decades, the number and diversity of people who want to see themselves reflected in this space expands, too. It’s time to bring queer cannabis culture out of the closet and give this overlooked, underground history its due. 

Brian ‘Box’ Brown Advocates for Patients as an Illustrator and Comic Publisher

Brian ‘Box’ Brown uses his experiences as a cannabis patient to showcase who is dialed in and who is shut out when it comes to legalization.

Editor’s note: Grasslands’ Cannabis Journalist Q&A blog series—introducing us to some of the most important and dedicated journalists on the beat—is curated, reported and written by Oakland-based journalist Ellen Holland, former Senior Editor of Cannabis Now magazine, San Francisco Chronicle freelancer and Chief Editor of multiple Ed Rosenthal books, including The Big Book of Buds Greatest Hits and This Bud’s For You. Her book Weed: A Connoisseur’s Guide to Cannabis explores flavor profiles, strain families and the myriad of ways to appreciate the world’s most favored flower. 
 
When it comes to cannabis journalism and storytelling in general, Brian “Box” Brown takes a different approach. The cartoonist, illustrator and comic publisher’s works have appeared on The New York Times’ best-seller list and garnered Eisner and Ignatz awards. Brown, who lives in Philadelphia, also creates a daily web-comic called Legalization Nation that showcases both his personal experiences with cannabis as well as political happenings. 
 
Brown has been a cannabis enthusiast since he was in his teens. While very much unappreciated, he says his arrest for cannabis possession while he was still in high school gave him a firsthand look at the legal system and likely increased his interest in the plant.  
 
These days, he has a new perspective on cannabis, one shaped by the changing laws and regulations across America. While he was working on his book Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America, released in 2019, he signed up for the Pennsylvania medical cannabis program.
 
“It was the restrictive, corporate Pennsylvania program that actually radicalized me and got me into activism,” he says. “While I was working on that book it struck me that I couldn’t cover the current goings-on with legalization in the graphic novel format. The reality is that the publishing world is too slow. Any book covering legalization would inevitably be outdated by the time it was released to the public.”
 
This led him to create the regular comic strip Legalization Nation.  
 
“This allows me to bear witness and discuss what is going on while it’s happening,” he says. “Legalization Nation has actually opened doors for me to do actual political advocacy and lobbying as a patient and consumer with my local representatives.”  
 
Brown’s graphic nonfiction books have been featured in The New York Times, The Boston Globe and countless other publications, and he’s also had comics published in Leafly, Playboy and New York Magazine. His illustrations are featured in a forthcoming book, Accidental Czar, a biography of Vladimir Putin written by Andrew Weiss, a Carnegie Endowment expert on Russia, which will be released by First Second Books in 2022. 

How can comics cover cannabis in a way that traditional journalism cannot?

“It’s hard to quantify what makes comics uniquely suited to conveying important and even complex information in easy-to-digest pieces. There is a reason why the emergency instructions to evacuate a plane are basically a comic. Seeing the visual just helps people understand, it draws the reader in. It’s something people often call ‘the magic of comics.’ ”  

What was the first cannabis-themed illustration you drew, and what areas of covering cannabis do you like to focus on?

“Hard to know what the first one was. I definitely pitched the history of cannabis prohibition as a graphic novel just after my book Andre the Giant: Life and Legend came out. But my publisher wasn’t as interested at the time and I ended up doing a book about the history of Tetris. As the culture surrounding cannabis started changing I think my editors came around.  
 
“I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t hear, see or read a story in the mainstream news about cannabis. It’s all over, and honestly I don’t think I was seeing the coverage that I wanted to see.  There was mostly talk about how much money the state systems were making and stories about children who need cannabis and children who accidentally took too much cannabis, etc., etc. I was really looking for something focusing on the amount of corporate and regulatory corruption I was witnessing as a patient in Pennsylvania; the vast disparities between state systems and who is benefiting from legalization and who is not, etc. 
 
Legalization Nation focuses on legalization from a patient / consumer / working class / small business / traditional market perspective that I think was missing from cannabis coverage. Here I am, a Pennsylvania medical cannabis patient in a restrictive corporate system. What does this mean for me and others like me? What are patients and consumers actually doing? What are the large multistate operators who’ve seized control here actually doing? What I’ve found is that there are a lot of other patients and consumers like me in Pennsylvania and many other states who are dealing with these same issues who need a voice.” 

Who have been some of your favorite people to interview?

“Not politicians, I’ll tell you that much, sheesh. I watched a lot of pro-wrestling in my day (wrote a few books on the subject) and nothing makes me feel more like I’m talking to a pro-wrestler than when I talk to politicians. It’s extremely strange. Not something I’m used to. My favorite people to talk to are cannabis patients, whom I often connect with personally. I really like to shine a light on how people are using cannabis to treat their conditions and make their lives more livable. 
 
“I also like to focus on small businesses who are being shut out of corporate cannabis systems. I like connecting with local farmers and hash makers who are eventually going to be the backbone of the American cannabis industry (ask any Canadian about subject-matter experts.) I love to connect with other activists. It’s unfortunate how this has been a state-by-state issue because it forces activists to fight 50 individual battles instead of one big one. We’re all fighting the same fights, and in many cases against the literal same entities.” 

How has the comic world reacted to your cannabis coverage?

“I think the comics world has embraced it. I’ve gotten to hear from a lot of my colleagues who are medical patients and consumers. It turns out cartoonists suffer from a lot of the same work-related injuries and benefit from therapeutic use of cannabis.” 

Find cannabis journalist Brian “Box” Brown on Instagram and Twitter (@boxbrown)

Find Ellen Holland on Twitter @Hollandbuds

Cannabis Journalist Jimi Devine Stokes the Fire

Cannabis Journalist Jimi Devine

Jimi Devine uncovers the exclusive realm of cannabis breeders who are creating the world’s newest strains.

Cannabis Journalist Jimi Devine

Editor’s note: Grasslands’ weekly Cannabis Journalist Q&A blog series—introducing us to some of the most important and dedicated journalists on the beat—is curated, reported and written by Oakland-based journalist Ellen Holland, former Senior Editor of Cannabis Now magazine, San Francisco Chronicle freelancer and Chief Editor of multiple Ed Rosenthal books, including The Big Book of Buds Greatest Hits and This Bud’s For You.

Jimi Devine is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to consistently bringing an infectious, enthusiastic energy to articles displaying a deep knowledge base about cannabis cultivars, politics and culture. Known for highlighting the hypest new cannabis strains, Devine’s likeability and longtime dedication to the cannabis space affords him the connections and accountability he needs to capture the ever-evolving essence of cannabis culture in real-time. 

Currently serving as a cannabis columnist and critic for LA Weekly, Devine has contributed to publications including the San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, Weedmaps and Leafly, and also worked as a senior staff writer at Cannabis Now magazine. His own website, Devine’s Fine Cannabis Guide, highlights the world’s finest flowers. 

He has also served as a judge for several prestigious cannabis competitions and is one of the most knowledgeable people working in the cannabis beat regarding topics such as concentrates and strain genealogy. 

In a space that can often be dominated by aggregate news, Devine taps into his vast network of friends and associates and always strives for originality. 

Devine got his start as a cannabis advocate with organizations such as the Drug Policy Alliance and Students for Sensible Drug Policy beginning in 2005 while he was still in college. Originally from Lynn, Massachusetts, Devine has a bachelor’s in Journalism and Media Studies from Franklin Pierce University of New Hampshire, and started working full-time in the cannabis industry at the Cannabis Buyers Club of Berkeley (CBCB) when he moved to California in 2009. 

Following a favorable placement from THC Staffing Group, Devine jumped into sales for SFGate’s sister blog Smell the Truth before becoming a contributing writer. Today he is one of the most preeminent pot journalists, especially in terms of covering cannabis cultivars.  

How do you track down and write about new strains? What are some new ones you are excited about?

“I’ve been following a lot of the world’s top breeders for years and generally try to keep an eye on what the little guys are up to as well, especially the ones with commercially viable terps. There are a lot of great seeds popped every year that just simply aren’t commercially viable. You start to figure out why names like 3rd Gen Family and Compound are kept in the shadows by so many larger corporate entities that buy a few packs of their seeds. Consistency over the years tends to point the compass well. 

“With that being said, you’ll see things just bash their way on the scene because there’s a special kind of heat that transcends any press release or anything I could ever say about them. It just doesn’t matter because they’re that flame. The Str8organics run of Everything Bagels, a blend of Thug Pug Genetics’ Garlic Breath and Peanut Butter Breath done by @Best_Test_in_the_West, is the perfect recent example.” 

Who have been some of your favorite people to interview so far?

“There are too many farmers to name. Every time someone hits me up to tell me an article meant a lot to their homie as they fight to make it in this crazy industry, it means the world to me. I’m honestly just trying to write about as much heat from as many legal operators as possible because I can’t send grandmas to trap houses, but we’ve made a few exceptions. Coming from the activism background that got me into the industry, it’s also been cool to try and give drug policy people some shine or a platform. If someone thinks I’m not a real journalist because I spent the last 16 years arguing people shouldn’t be in a cage, so be it. I’ll be OK without them.  

“The past couple years with LA Weekly have certainly been fun in regards to talking to celebrities about dipping their toes into cannabis. Rick Ross was wildly down to earth, as anyone could tell from the podcast we did together. Carlos Santana was probably the funniest. We went from Bill Graham and Jerry Garcia saying he could make a buck playing guitar to whether he looked at all of his weed. He laughed and said he didn’t look at all of his wine either, just two glasses.” 

What area of your cannabis coverage do you get the most feedback on?

“I get the most hate mail when I write about Cookies or Connected generally, but the all-time winner for a single story is Masonic. I’ve never met someone so polarizing. The love letters and disdain were both written with the same vigor. It was kind of why I wanted to write the story. And the fact Wilson is one of the few strains besides GMO that makes things wash better for rosin yields when they’re paired with it. 

“Profile pieces get the most love. Certain things about bigger-name folks you have more faith in, but it’s still great to hear someone learned something new. The stuff about the smaller operators trying to scale up gets a good bit of support. A lot of people hate articles about celebrity weed.”

Where is the next hotspot for cannabis cultivation?

“I think 90% of production will be west of the Sierra Nevada when it’s all said and done. But right now, as we watch markets open one by one, people growing weed in New York will have the most to gain in the near term. Eventually, a lot of these cultivation markets will crash and everyone will just buy light dep ounces from California with some niche indoor. Anyone who claims otherwise is just trying to cash in while they can and living in denial.”

Find cannabis journalist Jimi Devine on Instagram @thejimidevine

Find Ellen Holland on Twitter @Hollandbuds