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Engaging the Misinformation of Prohibition: A Conversation with Ricardo Baca

Interview Conducted by Jason S. Lupoi, Ph.D.

You’ve likely heard Donald talking about misinformation and fake news. It’s ubiquitous these days. And even when the news isn’t made up, it can often be misconstrued, or can just be the same basic text, perpetuated ad nauseum, as couch reporters stay home to get the story. And then, there are old school journalists like Hunter S. Thompson and Ricardo Baca, who not only value getting at the real story, but also often become a part of the very stories they investigate.

Baca’s story, at least for our first discussion (one of what I hope are many), started in the early days of Colorado’s recreational cannabis legalization, so circa 2012. He was exercising his right to vote in the Presidential election, which wouldn’t normally be talked about, since Baca was also a reporter for The Denver Post. We’re all clearly aware that humans are often opinionated, and our individual vantage points can become vocalized manifestos, as we bombard bystanders with our system of beliefs. As a reporter for a mainstream media outlet, however, Baca needed to keep his outlook to himself. “I knew that Denver County was also voting on Amendment 64 for cannabis legalization,” Baca explained. “I recognized the importance and historical significance of this vote. But it was weird to be voting for cannabis as a reporter.” He voted “yes”.

The rest really is history, and as we know, Colorado signed the amendment into its constitution. In 2013, the state moved forward with developing regulations for the historic adult-use cannabis sales that were set to begin the following year, and news coverage ramped up as well. Baca took a vacation, and upon his return to The Post, his boss told him he wanted him to cover the legalization in the industry, making Baca the first cannabis editor. The Post wanted Baca to also start a separate website that covered the industry. And so, Baca started The Cannabist. Tangentially, Baca sought to learn more about cannabis products and for the first time tried an edible, which changed his life forever. The plot thickened, as Baca was now part of the story he wanted to convey. “The site quickly got a lot of national attention,” Baca added. “I was fortunate to be able to promote the site on television shows like The View and The Colbert Report. The fact that The Denver Post created this outlet was stunning to the larger audience.”

“We were drawing more readers than High Times, and so I hired my colleague Aleta,” Baca continued. “I was tired of seeing my colleagues getting laid off from the newspaper. Eventually we grew to a staff of seven full-timers.” In 2016, Baca resigned from The Post, as he wanted to make a small slice of the cannabis industry better. And so, he created Grasslands: A Journalism-Minded Agency, a boutique full-service PR and communications firm designed to work “with business leaders in highly regulated industries, including cannabis, energy and traditional healthcare.”

Looking back on his time as The Post’s cannabis editor, Baca said the shifting social norms and public opinion about cannabis prohibition were as important as the rise of the industry.  “I began studying drug policy and how much we’ve botched this as a country”, he added. “Our fight is far from over. Despite most Americans wanting cannabis legalization, more than 40% of Colorado voters were not for legalization, thinking that the plant was an inherent danger.”

In the days of vast social media connections to anyone who will listen, or “like” posts on the minutiae of existence, or become your back-pocket friend, it’s easy to become entangled in the web of one’s own world. After all, you are fairly instrumental in designing your world, and often, birds of a feather indeed do flock. So if you, dear reader, haven’t done so recently, seek out and chat up someone who shivers at the thoughts of a world where The Devil’s Lettuce has usurped the sanctity of Anytown, U.S.A, and is planted in every spare nook and cranny. The horror, the horror.

So, although the tide has turned, there’s still a lot of work to be done. “Basic drug war propaganda is still very relevant,” Baca added. “There’s still misconceptions touted as gospel, like the gateway drug theory. There’s still the Schedule I classification of THC as having no medicinal value. In 2016, there were nine states that had ballot initiatives. Arizona sought to evolve from medical to recreational cannabis legalization, but it failed. There was a very successful campaign against legalization.”

Ah yes…behold your version of Anytown, U.S.A., where the green cross dominates, and your neighbors smoke and laugh and bark at the moon. Anti-cannabis preachers evangelized the “fact” that a world with legalized cannabis was a dangerous place to live. “They used suspect data from the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program. There is so much good information out there, that the prohibitionists need to cherry-pick the bad stuff,” Baca commented.

Dispel the negativity. Focus on what’s revolutionary. “As much of a pain as it might be, a regulated cannabis industry is imperative,” Baca advised. “This is an industry that cares about its consumers. In 2014, Colorado defined the 10 mg dose for edibles, setting a needed standard for edibles in response to unforeseen consumer confusion about these surprisingly popular products, incidents of overconsumption and questions about potency. This regulation was a lot of work for companies to comply with so quickly, but also a necessity. Colorado was setting a responsible industry example for the rest of the world.”

In those early days of Colorado’s new adult-use cannabis market, Baca rather famously bought edibles, took them to a lab, and exposed the results to the public, revealing that many products didn’t contain the amount of THC the label claimed. “And a different investigation we conducted on the presence of pesticides in marijuana concentrates led to over 30 product recalls,” Baca added, “and led to an executive order from Governor Hickenlooper. And yet now, I see the Colorado marketplace being surpassed by other, younger markets.”

While I had the fortune to extract from Baca’s mind, I wanted to inquire about a keynote lecture he would be giving in April 2019 at the Sixth Annual Cannabis and Psychedelic Symposium. In case you haven’t heard, Denver is considering decriminalizing psilocybin mushrooms. “The event was born out of 4/20 celebrations,” Baca explained. “The University of Colorado has an intensely rich relationship with cannabis. But rather than just have a smoke-fest, they wanted to channel all of that power into an educational event.”

There are whispers amongst some researchers and educators that cannabis is just the beginning of the conversation. “With psychedelics, we need to walk before we run, in the same ways as cannabis evolved through decriminalization, medical legalization, etc.,” Baca opined. “In Denver, we are having this conversation about obtaining a saner, more sensible drug policy. So, hell yes! Let’s go on to psilocybin mushrooms.”

Passionately, he continued. “Considering the way medical professionals determine risk, psilocybin is said to have a lower risk than cannabis. It has an insanely low harm profile. So, yeah, let’s make drug policy more about health, and not crime. It should have always been about health and well-being.”

“We’re not sure, though, if the current cannabis model is the right one,” Baca weighed. “Should you have a 25-year old with minimum education making recommendations on what you should take for your cancer or PTSD when you’re purchasing products in a dispensary?” (Editor’s Note: Perhaps this is where those younger markets are advancing, as medical patients can consult with a pharmacist every time they enter a Pennsylvania dispensary.)

Thus, coming in May 2019, hundreds of thousands of Denver County voters will consider the chance to right some more of the drug policy wrongs, and vote yes that mushrooms should be decriminalized. “Some of the same people championing this cause are the same folks that did this for cannabis,” Baca added. “I couldn’t be prouder of being a Colorado native. Colorado emerged as this sane voice to take on the misinformation of prohibition.”

Lawmakers in Colorado also put their money where their mouths are when it comes to researching psychotropic substances. There was a glut of cannabis licensing fee revenue, amounting to nearly $10,000,000. In a wonderful, trendsetting example of philanthropy for humanity, the state provided a grant of more than $2,000,000 to MAPS, or the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies to research the efficacy of cannabis in treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“MAPS is massive,” Baca added. “They’ve received over $100 million in funding. They’ve conducted a big MDMA [ecstasy] trial. They truly represent the next frontier.”

“What advice do you have for skeptics clinging to the sinking ship of misconception?” I asked.

“Open your minds and forget everything you’ve been told. We’ve been lied to for 80 years, and as soon as you realize this, you may find a substance that helps you feel relief, both life-changing and brain-changing. I refuse to live my life out of fear. Let the science tell us what’s what.”

Amen to that.

About the author

Jason S. Lupoi, Ph.D.

Jason S. Lupoi, Ph.D.

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