Medical marijuana dispensary owner Jason Irwin on the pros and cons of talking to the press

These days, people involved in the medical marijuana community are understandably paranoid about interacting with the press -- and especially TV reporters -- thanks to the story of Highlands Ranch's Chris Bartkowicz, who was arrested following a Drug Enforcement Administration raid on his home grow after showing it off in a Channel 9 interview.

Despite what happened to Bartkowicz, who he refers to as "that poor Highlands Ranch guy," Jason Irwin, owner and founder of the Highland Health dispensary, doesn't believe legitimate businesses like his should hide from the media. "It's important to put yourself out there, so the world can make an opinion of what's going on here," he says.

Still, his experience with a CNN interview this week (see it below) makes him more cognizant than ever about the pitfalls of such interactions. "You need to be wary," he says. "The media is out to get sensational stories, and if they can use you to do that, that's what's going to happen."

Irwin's had good experiences with local stations thus far, and he was also pleased with a December CNN piece headlined "Marijuana Mom and the Cannabis Kid," which focused on the relationship between him and his mom and business partner, Diane Irwin.

That piece was assembled by correspondent Jim Spellman -- and so when Spellman wanted to revisit the territory more recently, Irwin naturally agreed. But the results weren't as much to his liking the second time around.

"I felt like I was caught a little off-guard," he concedes. "Basically, all the good quotes I gave him weren't included."


"He said to me, 'Okay, tell me why you like marijuana. You have thirty seconds. Go.' And the first thing out of my mouth was, 'I love marijuana.' And then from there, I went on talk about why, the reasons behind that -- how much joy I get from helping patients and interacting with patients who wouldn't normally have access to this program. And the only part of that quote he used was, 'I love marijuana.'"

Just as frustrating for Irwin was the report's characterization of him as an "old-fashioned drug dealer" before opening up the dispensary in 2008. He admits to having sold marijuana for a short period of time before going legit, but he stresses that he was didn't branch out into peddling a wide range of other illegal substances -- and he has no such busts on his record. Other than that, he was a consumer, not a distributor.

"If you'd go back and ask any of my friends from two years ago, they'd tell you, 'He wasn't a drug dealer. He had no hook-ups. He'd call me to look for weed. Jason didn't know shit,'" he notes, laughing.

Indeed, he feels his success as a businessman despite his almost total lack of experience is a much more interesting story than the one CNN presented to its viewers.

"I'm an arborist by training -- a tree guy -- and I worked in cafes and restaurants," he says. "Really, I'm more or less a normal, non-marijuana person. So the sensational part is really how far I've gotten in this industry with how little experience I had with selling."

The resulting report won't make Irwin shy away from future interviews, as this one confirms. Moreover, things are going very well for Highland Health, which will be opening up a new branch location on April 1. "We feel really grateful to be in this time and place in the City of Denver," he says. "It's the best place in the world to be thanks to all the personal freedoms they're allowing us. The fact that they're giving us a chance to do this is really an honor."

Nonetheless, he thinks medical marijuana entrepreneurs who are contacted by the media would be smart to contact organizations like NORML and the Marijuana Policy Project in advance for tips about what to say and how to say it.

On top of that, he says, "my advice to people is to be prepared that little things you say will get taken way out of context. So everything you say is really important, because it could be used independently of what you were talking about at the time."

Here's the CNN report:

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts