60 Minutes Stirs the Pot With Piece on Colorado's Cannabis Challenges

Governor John Hickenlooper walks through Colorado's State Capitol with Jonathan LaPook of 60 Minutes.
Governor John Hickenlooper walks through Colorado's State Capitol with Jonathan LaPook of 60 Minutes.
60 Minutes

For a segment called "The Pot Vote" that aired Sunday, October 30, 60 Minutes came to Colorado to investigate the marijuana boom. The piece began as a typical new-industry-brings-ups-and-downs-to-community piece that swung not so subtly to pose an ominous — and misrepresentative — picture of what's going on in this state's cannabis industry.

Jonathan LaPook, a two-time Emmy-winning journalist with an M.D. to boot, begins the segment by promising to show "what's working and what's not" in Colorado, the first state to allow the sale of recreational marijuana, then briefly discusses how attitudes toward legalization have shifted in recent years.

"Five percent of Americans live in states where pot is legal for recreational use. But by next Wednesday, that percentage could swell to almost 25 percent. It's on the ballot in five states," he says, mentioning multiple studies that have independently determined that over half the country supports legalization. While he doesn't name the studies, we reported on two that came out within the last month, one from Pew Research and another from Gallup, both saying support for marijuana legalization is at an all-time high.

LaPook then takes the audience to Pueblo and interviews Bob DeGabrielle, one of the owners of Los Sueños, the largest marijuana cultivation operation in the country. The camera spans over 36 acres of land, showing viewers the 21,600 plants that populate the outdoor grow facility. DeGabrielle and his partners have invested $10 million in creating the business, 60 Minutes reports.

LaPook explains that Colorado has implemented a "tightly regulated industry." As the camera shows the personnel at Los Sueños curing the bud, he tells viewers how each cultivation facility is required to outfit every plant with a radio frequency tag that tracks it from seed to sale.

He shows the security at Los Sueños. "This is high-tech, high-security retail cultivation, where 289 cameras track every plant and 22,000 pounds of marijuana are harvested a year, then cured in barrels like wine," his voiceover explains.

LaPook talks about how the industry has been good for the community in Pueblo, a town that has been one of Colorado's poorest counties for decades. "In so many ways, it's been an economic windfall for the community," DeGabrielle says.

LaPook's reporting backs that up. He cites evidence that marijuana has created 1,300 jobs and more than sixty businesses in Pueblo County. He talks about how careful the industry is. All of the 85 employees at Los Sueños had to pass background checks and be fingerprinted before they were allowed to work there.

LaPook mentions Ballot Question 200, which is on Pueblo County's ballot this November. If passed, it would completely shut down the marijuana industry in the county. ( We've visited with opponents of the bill and talked with industry leaders about why they think it needs to be defeated.)

"While five U.S. states will have legalization of recreational marijuana on the ballot, this Colorado county is considering restricting it," LaPook reports.

And then the piece goes off the rails.

LaPook takes the viewer to Pueblo's Saint Mary Corwin Medical Center for an interview with Dr. Steven Simmerville, a pediatrician and the medical director of the newborn intensive-care unit at the hospital who supports 200.

"In the first nine months of this year, 27 babies born at this hospital tested positive for THC. That's on track to be about 15 percent higher than last year," Simmerville says.

That figure certainly sounds ominous, but despite some studies that suggest marijuana may affect neurological development, research on marijuana's effect on newborns has yet to be disentangled from environmental factors. Moreover, since recreational marijuana was legalized, doctors test more frequently for cannabis, which may explain the marginal rise in positive THC tests.

Despite this, Simmerville goes on to say that he tells mothers that even if they're not smoking very much, the baby is "getting seven times more than you're taking" and that there's "evidence to suggest" it causes harm in developing brains.

Before Simmerville's appearance in the segment, 60 Minutes lets you know in a blink-or-you'll-miss-it disclaimer that his "observations are anecdotal and have no scientific evidence to substantiate them."

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In a voiceover, LaPook says: "Research suggests babies exposed to marijuana in utero may develop verbal, memory and behavioral problems during early childhood." He's right; some studies have said that. However, there are others with contradictory findings, and all of the research stipulates that there is not enough evidence to make a conclusive assertion one way or another. 60 Minutes doesn't mention that.

After speaking with Simmerville, LaPook moves on to law enforcement and interviews Sheriff Kirk Taylor, another opponent of the legalization movement. Taylor speaks about the black market and the problem that Pueblo, and the rest of Colorado, has experienced with increased home grows.

"They said the black market would disappear. I can tell you the black market is alive and well and thriving. In fact, it's exploding," Taylor says.

60 Minutes then followed Taylor and Pueblo's SWAT team on one of the largest busts of an illegal home-grow operation in the country.

"More than 150 deputies and agents armed with thirteen search warrants were preparing for a coordinated strike," LaPook explains. "The target of the day’s raid was a drug cartel from Southeast Asia, suspected of converting ten rental homes into grow operations that are hiding in plain sight."

These operations weren't growing for Colorado; they were funneling marijuana into neighboring states where the drug is still illegal and more profitable, Taylor says. The cartel strategy is subtle but important to notice, since we've already been told by Taylor about the black market "exploding." We're not reminded of the reports that drug legalization may be more effective at stopping drug cartels than the War on Drugs was.

Taylor then explains that these enterprises are not mom-and-pop shops, they're organized crime.

Instead of visiting a mom-and-pop shop, like Mesa Organics, owned and operated by a couple who are fighting to defeat 200, the 60 Minutes crew chooses to interview Marilyn Huestis, former chief of chemistry and drug metabolism at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an organization with a government-granted monopoly on marijuana research.

"Illegal grows like this are not the only problem cops here are facing," LaPook explains as he transitions into Huestis's interview. "Some people are getting high, then getting behind the wheel, and there is currently no field sobriety test in use that is the equivalent of the breathalizer for alcohol."

(For context, here's 60 Minutes' parent network, CBS, explaining why measuring marijuana's effect on driving isn't like alcohol at all.)

Huestis agrees there's a difference between alcohol and marijuana and says she thinks it's an issue the "public needs to know" more about. "When you take alcohol, it has its effects and then it leaves the body. When you take cannabis, it gets into the tissues of your body and is stored," she says. "It's stored in fat, and the brain is a very fat, fatty tissue and so we know that it's still in the brain when you can no longer measure it in the blood."

The report then goes on to mention there have been no noticeable increases in data concerning either teen drug use or driving while high in Colorado.

LaPook ends the segment with an interview with Governor John Hickenlooper, who urges caution for other states considering legalization — and emphasizes the lack of data.

"My recommendation has been that they should go slowly and probably wait a couple of years," Hickenlooper says. "And let’s make sure that we get some good vertical studies to make sure that there isn’t a dramatic increase in teenage usage, that there isn’t a significant increase in abuse like while driving. We don’t see it yet, but the data is not perfect. And we don’t have enough data yet to make that decision."

He's right: There isn't enough evidence to prove or disprove the many media-driven fears regarding marijuana legalization, but you wouldn't know it from the 60 Minutes segment. You might expect more from a news outlet that promises in the segment to tell you "what's working and what's not."

One of the misleading items in the piece is calling "overdoses" an early failure of Colorado's recreational legalization: It has been repeatedly shown that it is scientifically impossible to overdose on marijuana. In 2015, Levy Thamba, an exchange student, jumped off a balcony after he ate an edible cookie, which prompted new regulatory guidelines for edible dosage labels in the recreational industry. LaPook, and many other national media sources, spin this as one of those early overdose "mistakes" of legalization. However, a marijuana-related death is not a marijuana overdose, and it is wrong to say otherwise — especially a week before an election day when there are marijuana legalization measures in five states.

To its credit, 60 Minutes closes with Hickenlooper remarking on marijuana's economic benefits for the state coffers, and how the situation wasn't exactly rosy before marijuana legalization. "Nobody could argue that the old system wasn't a disaster," he says. "We had an old system where kids had access to an open market, and everything was black market."


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