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.