HelloMD had the chance to speak to Alex Halperin, a top cannabis journalist and the founder of the popular weekly online newsletter WeedWeek. Alex has become a mainstay in cannabis journalism, which led to the creation of WeedWeek, a Saturday morning newsletter that covers everything from cannabis culture and business to criminal justice issues related to marijuana. This past week, an article he wrote regarding the recent DEA decision to not reschedule cannabis from a Schedule I drug was published in SF Weekly. We got to speak to Alex his work as a cannabis journalist and where he sees the industry going in the future.
So, how did you get into cannabis journalism?
I had held various journalism jobs in New York before I got into cannabis journalism. While I was a freelancer, I went to an industry conference in Las Vegas on assignment for Fast Company in November 2014. I wrote a couple of stories about cannabis and very quickly realized that marijuana was a very fascinating and rich genre. Pretty soon after that I started making plans to move to Colorado to specifically focus on it. I moved to Colorado in March of 2015.
What other publications do you write for?
I write for a bunch of different publications. My cannabis work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, Fast Company, and several other places.
When and why did you start WeedWeek?
I started WeedWeek in July of 2015, so about 5 months after I moved out to Colorado. I thought it filled a niche that was vacant and it was an opportunity to boost my profile as a cannabis journalist.
How does WeedWeek differentiate itself?
My background is in mainstream journalism, so I try to bring that to WeedWeek. Most of my subscribers, I assume, are pro marijuana and quite a few of them are involved in the industry. I feel like my readers want to absorb information, even if it doesn’t necessarily support their thesis. They want to have a good idea of whats going on, whether or not they are happy about it. I think cannabis reporting has gotten a lot more robust since I started reporting, but there has been a certain shyness in reporting on issues that often paints marijuana in a poor light.
For instance, in the most recent issue of WeedWeek I reported that rates of cannabis use among the uneducated are climbing, and they are probably increasing among all different kinds of peoples, and this is interesting. It is something that the industry isn’t necessarily bragging about, but it is something that they have to be aware of. I trust that my readers to want to know information like that and that they are openminded enough to accept that information.
Is marijuana coverage different from the coverage on opioids?
I think there is a lot of pretty friendly coverage. Most journalists don’t really have a problem with marijuana and even the ones that do have much more of a problem with an unfair criminal justice system. I think I’m in agreement with most journalists when I say I think that this is much more of a problem. There is a lot of novelty coverage of marijuana, like ‘oh look celebrity chefs are getting involved’ or other style stories that aren’t too concerned with legalization. With opioids, the facts on the ground are much more dire and demand a much more critical kind of coverage. Opioids don’t get any good coverage, as far as I know, because by any standard the availability of these drugs is a much bigger problem than we see with marijuana.
What are your thoughts on the DEA’s decision not to reschedule cannabis?
I do not have any deeper insight into the DEA than a lot of people, but I guess I would say a few things. There was a potential for rescheduling to really upset the industry by taking a product that is federally unregulated and making it regulated. That raised some red flags from companies who were worried that the federal government could interfere with the growing industry. It is not certain how real of a concern that really was, but I think that a lot of people in the industry were looking to the DEA for some vindication for the work they do, the jobs they create, and of the benefits of medical marijuana. I think they were looking for a little pat on the shoulder and they didn’t get it, but ultimately, I don’t think it has large consequences for how the industry will expand and grow in the future.
Does the DEA’s decision effect the news in states going for legalization?
I think in the states where there is something on the ballot, especially states that are voting on recreational marijuana, which are Arizona, Nevada, Massachusetts, Maine, and California, there will be a lot of coverage as these states are becoming familiar with the issues. As for coverage in the other states, maybe not as much. An election year also takes up a lot of air, especially with everything that has happened around Trump. It has taken away coverage from marijuana and a lot of other worthy stories.
If California legalizes, does it become the center of the industry nationwide?
California is a massive market, it is often called the world’s 8th or 9th largest economy, so there will be some kind of shift. It also considers itself marijuana’s real home in America because it is where the movement started. Marijuana was just always a bigger part of everyday life in California than in other states, so there is definitely going to be some shift. Smaller states are protected by the fact that you cannot sell marijuana across state lines. Should the federal government get involved though, and rules like that begin to dissolve, then it will be interesting to see how other states try to stay competitive to California.
What are your thoughts on cannabis legalization?
I think legalization will be very hard to stop for a variety of reasons. One is that unlike other decisive social issues, like abortion or same sex marriage, there are not extremely deep convictions on the right about how these things shouldn’t exist. People in the cannabis industry like to talk about how bad the opposition is, but I think it is relatively small. Opponents have some legitimate arguments, but they don’t always focus on their best arguments. They over utilize ascetic arguments, like the inherent offensiveness of a store selling marijuana gummy bears even if kids really aren’t going to see the gummy bears. There are some issues that are concerning though, like the growing number of new born babies in Colorado that are being born with THC in their system. I think most of what we know about marijuana being dangerous is that it is most dangerous for developing brains. There are medical opponents, law and order opponents, and some status quo opponents, but compared to the side of legalization they lack the money and the motivation. I don’t see the opposition being able to get together the money, motivation, or organization to stop the tide of legalization.
As cannabis goes more mainstream where do you see yourself?
When I first got to Colorado it already felt pretty normal. It is even more so now because there are normal business patterns and more and more people are more habituated to it. I think it’ll be interesting to see how new states, especially states that aren’t as progressive, adapt. The California industry will look very different from the industry in Ohio, in the products they produce and the forms of regulation they implement. It will be interesting to see how different systems evolve and what works best in the long run.