Denver's New Media Voice Loves to Hate Cannabis

Denver's New Media Voice Loves to Hate CannabisEXPAND
Jacqueline Collins
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Denver has a new voice offering old takes on pot.

Before the Denver Gazette launched on September 14, we anticipated that the digital news source, backed by billionaire conservative Phil Anschutz, would continue the streak of weed-bashing exhibited by Anschutz's Colorado Springs Gazette.

The Gazette's reputation of hating the plant was earned through years of questionable editorial decisions, dating back to a 2015 series of articles co-authored by Christine Tatum, the wife of Dr. Christian Thurstone, one of Colorado's most prominent physicians to oppose recreational pot legalization. (The series disclosed Tatum's relationship with Thurstone, but didn't point out that she herself was a longtime opponent of marijuana who once suggested that the Boston Marathon bombing and Columbine High School killings were both linked to marijuana use.)

Since then, the Colorado Springs Gazette has continued to be the state's most prominent anti-marijuana media voice.

Before the Denver Gazette debuted, publisher and president Chris Reen insisted that Anschutz, an ardent supporter of anti-pot campaigns in the past, doesn't interfere with editorial decisions. Two weeks after the new digital newspaper went online, however, it became clear that marijuana disdain came with it. The September 28 editorial titled "Troubling lessons learned from legalization," published in both the Colorado Springs and Denver Gazettes, tore into legal marijuana, warning readers of the stoned troublemakers taking over the state.

"Sizable wholesale and retail excise taxes pump pot revenue into public coffers," the editorial pronounced. "Meanwhile, for those Coloradans and tourists who had been longing to spend their days in a pot-induced stupor — without inhibition and beyond the reach of the law — well, now they can."

Not exactly. Public marijuana consumption is still banned in Colorado, and the majority of hotels and rental homes prohibit smoking, which makes things tough for those tourists. Local governments are allowed to license marijuana hospitality establishments, but few have: Currently, three towns allow social use during non-COVID times (Colorado Springs, Denver and Glendale), and there under five pot-friendly establishments among them. While a handful of pot tourism companies and unregulated private cannabis clubs allowed consumption in Colorado, those have become almost extinct during the pandemic — and local law enforcement has never been a fan of them.

That was just the start of the Gazette's editorial, which essentially cut and pasted from a list of selective data compiled in an annual report released earlier in September by Smart Approaches to Marijuana, one of the country's most vocal anti-legalization organizations, and one that loves to use information from the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. (We also received a copy of SAM's report.) A federally funded law enforcement group, RMHIDTA has been issuing critical, questionable reports about legal marijuana in Colorado since marijuana prohibition ended in late 2012, and has been largely ignored by public officials and the media. Unless you're the Gazette.

RMHIDTA director Tom Gorman has acknowledged that some RMHIDTA data assembled is based on opinions, but that didn't stop SAM from citing RMHIDTA fifteen times in its latest research paper. One RMHIDTA "fact" cited by the Gazette was that dispensaries outnumbered the 600 McDonald’s and Starbucks locations in Colorado in 2019, noting that there were 1,016 medical and retail marijuana licenses in the state — but the editorial failed to mention that some of those licenses are for unopened stores, and that medical and recreational licenses often apply to the same location. By our count, there are currently fewer than 800 dispensaries statewide.

That wasn't the only selectively packaged statistic in the editorial. The second bullet point of "eye-opening and troubling" data noted that, according to the state Department of Public Health and Environment, over 23,000 households with children were found to be unsafely storing marijuana in 2018. No one is excusing that behavior, nor are we claiming that leaving weed out in front of kids is okay or harmless — but 23,000 homes is barely more than 1 percent of the 2.1 million households in Colorado as of 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

The SAM report pushes out more irrelevant data that the Gazette wisely avoided including in the editorial. For example, RMHIDTA claims that Colorado has recorded a 7 percent increase in gallons of alcohol consumed in Colorado since legalization. Ignoring the weird causation warning tucked in there, let's focus on the facts: Colorado's population increased nearly 10 percent from 2012, when recreational marijuana was legalized, to 2019, from 5.193 million to 5.759 million people.

It's important to note that some of the data presented by SAM and repeated by the Gazette isn't out of context, and there are valid concerns over the impacts of cannabis legalization. The numbers of cannabis-related emergency room visits has been steadily rising in Colorado since legalization, according to Rocky Mountain Poison & Drug Safety, and they don't all involve harmless edible freakouts. Youth cannabis use, one of the strongest arguments used by anti-marijuana groups, isn't something that should be taken lightly, either. Although the percentage of teens admitting to marijuana use within the last month has stayed flat in Colorado since 2013, a bi-annual survey from the CDPHE shows that the number of Colorado teens consuming cannabis concentrate — extracted cannabis products that range anywhere from 60 to 95 percent THC — more than doubled from 2015 to 2019.

But when rational concern is clouded by reefer madness, it's hard to focus on the real issues.

Cannabis legalization is far from perfect, and it's okay to have different voices on the matter, especially those offering a counterpoint in a city where registered Democrat voters outnumber Republicans four to one. You only have to look at the back of a print edition of Westword to see where we fall on the matter, but that doesn't mean we're opposed to having the discussion — as long as those talks are done in good faith and are based on facts.

So far, the Denver Gazette brand has avoided those. Based on years of experience with the Anschutz mothership in Colorado Springs, don't expect that to change.

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