Medical marijuana is an evergreen (pardon the pun) topic for alternative weeklies, along with the return of vinyl records. The recent loosening of federal regulations under Obama have pushed the issue into the mainstream, with one surprising side effect -- a huge boost in ad sales for alternative papers and even some mainstream dailies, as medical marijuana businesses like "Happy Buddah" and "High Mike's" attempt to entice customers, er, patients.
But the New York Times, usually hypersensitive to how corporate advertising affects coverage of industry-related issues, didn't spot any potential conflicts in this case, even as a newspaper executive lamented how a tightening of a state law on medical marijuana could adversely affect his newspaper ad sales.
Reporter Jeremy Peters' report from Colorado Springs, "New Fuel for Local Papers: Ads for Medical Marijuana," on Tuesday's front page, failed to question whether such massive advertising for a controversial product could influence a newspaper's journalism. By comparison, the Times banned tobacco cigarette ads from its pages in 1999, and tobacco companies have long been prohibited from advertising their products on television and radio.
When it hit the streets here last week, the latest issue of ReLeaf, a pullout supplement to The Colorado Springs Independent devoted to medical marijuana, landed with a satisfying thud.
Forty-eight pages in all, it was stuffed with advertisements for businesses with names like Mile High Mike's, Happy Buddah and the Healthy Connections (which enticed potential customers with promises of "naughty nurses" to tend to patients' needs).
A full-page ad in ReLeaf costs about $1,100, making the publication a cash cow for The Independent, which has used its bounty from medical marijuana ads this year to hire one new reporter and promote three staff members to full time.
Peters dismissed policy concerns in a single sentence, and quoted no dissenting voices.
What would happen in the many communities now allowing medical marijuana had been a subject of much hand-wringing. But few predicted this: that it would be a boon for local newspapers looking for ways to cope with the effects of the recession and the flight of advertising -- especially classified listings -- to Web sites like Craigslist.
But in states like Colorado, California and Montana where use of the drug for health purposes is legal, newspapers -- particularly alternative weeklies -- have rushed to woo marijuana providers. Many of these enterprises are flush with cash and eager to get the word out about their fledgling businesses.
Even the L.A. Weekly, an alternative paper which relies heavily on such advertising, has been more critical of medical marijuana than the Times, noting in November 2009: "Critics see [a medical marijuana store] as an illegal, moneymaking, cash machine that buys weed from black-marketeers, as do scores of dispensaries in L.A. About 70 percent of the visitors entering dispensaries observed by the Weekly in November were young men -- corroborating D.A. Cooley's claim that the real market for all this activity is everyday users, not people suffering serious disease."
Peters added that mainstream papers like the Denver Post were "taking advantage of the boom and making no apologies."
Newspaper publishers saw an opening for medical marijuana advertising after the Obama administration said last fall that it would not prosecute users and suppliers of the drug as long as they complied with state laws. Though many states have made legal allowances for medical marijuana for nearly a decade (the total now is 14 and the District of Columbia), that decision freed more people to market and sell it as a medical product.
Peters didn't comment on this spectacle of a Montana newspaper executive breaching the barrier between advertising and journalism by openly worrying about how stricter regulation of medical marijuana laws would affect his newspaper's bottom line.
In Colorado Springs, where liberal marijuana policy has run head on into the city's active community of social conservatives, voters will decide next month on a ballot initiative that would ban medical marijuana sellers in unincorporated areas of El Paso County. In Montana the Legislature is expected to take up proposals to more strictly regulate medical marijuana use, including limiting the amount of the drug a patient can buy each month.
At The Missoula Independent, where medical marijuana advertising now makes up about 10 percent of the paper's revenue, there is concern that the spigot may soon tighten.
Matt Gibson, The Independent's president, said marijuana businesses have helped carry the paper through a rough recession. "It's been stressful for us for several years," he said. "There's no question that they've been good for our business. And we're worried about 2011, if the state revises the statute, which it appears is all but certain."