Denver is a city in love with its newspapers. Even in 2009, many residents still cling to the scent and grime of fresh newspaper print. But as the recent loss of the city's beloved Rocky Mountain News still lingers, the focus now turns to saving the publications remaining. In an ironic twist of fate worthy of its own front page feature, essential revenue could come from the most unlikely of sources. Marijuana.
Denver's top alternative weekly, Westword, gets it. On both sides of its most recent edition's back cover, 32 medical marijuana dispensaries advertised their services. In addition, in the publication's "alternative healing" section, nearly nine additional pages were packed with similar plugs.
Patricia Calhoun, Westword's editor and public face, has no qualms about accepting dispensaries as advertising clients. "It's first come, first served. No moratorium here," she said, referencing current efforts by many Colorado cities, including Denver, to enact moratoriums on new dispensaries. Westword has become so popular for marijuana-related advertising that Calhoun says she has plans to release an inaugural guide focusing exclusively on medical marijuana as early as next month.
But Westword hasn't just stopped there. It has shrewdly utilized the broader issue of medical marijuana to make a notable splash nationally. As the New York Times recently detailed, "Westword, an alternative weekly newspaper in Denver, has the standard lineup of film, food and music critics. But in what may be a first for American journalism, the paper is shopping around for a medical marijuana critic." According to Calhoun, more than 250 people submitted formal applications for the post.
While medical marijuana may be the source of laughter to some, including late night comedian Conan O'Brien, who joked, "My one suggestion for the editors: Give the guy a deadline," Calhoun and her colleagues are smart, picking up on what can only be described as marijuana's gold rush.
But what does this mean for more mainstream publications, who appear conflicted about whether to accept such controversial advertising?
While the Denver Post has run a series of front page stories over the last month chronicling the brewing debate over how or whether to increase regulations on dispensaries, it has been slower getting into the advertising game, running quarter page ads from a handful of dispensaries, with plans to expand advertising access through a special section devoted to dispensaries and other alternative health outlets.
Marijuana-related advertisements remain completely absent from Denver's high-end lifestyle magazines, including 5280. Perhaps they haven't heard of the high end dispensaries popping up in tony Cherry Creek North or affluent Greenwood Village.
These are crazy times indeed. But publications shouldn't fear offending their more conventional subscribers. While marijuana prohibition was once a taboo issue generally relegated to conversations in dark garages outside the privy of bossy wives and nosy neighbors, this is no longer the case. In 2000, a strong majority of Colorado voters supported enshrining legalized access to medical marijuana into the state constitution. Just nine years later, national polls show that nearly 45 percent of adults support outright marijuana legalization.
If newspapers need extra incentive to get into the game, they should look to the example of savvy business leaders in other conventional industries.
Just ask Bernie Taillon, a Greenwood Village financial advisor who occupies a penthouse office with mountain views, and in his spare time, brews beer. Originally from the Midwest, he is happily married to his college sweetheart, with whom he just celebrated his 10th wedding anniversary. Prior to this year, his high-profile client list included news anchors, real estate developers, and wealthy attorneys. And then along came medical marijuana.
While 2009 has been catastrophic for many in his industry, Taillon is seeing his business boom. "Over the past two years, I have seen a dramatic decline in income for our small business owners, with exception of one industry -- the Medical Marijuana industry," he said. "Sales tax from this industry is being paid to the state of Colorado as well as the local municipalities, which is helping to keep money in the municipalities coffers at a time when it is much needed."
For those who question his involvement with the industry, Taillon had this to say. "I am very happy to see this industry evolve into a legitimate and productive member of society. They should be commended for their contribution to our state. Many of our [dispensary] clients have two to five employees who otherwise would be collecting unemployment from the state. These businesses have been paying rent, advertising, construction costs, employees, utilities, and many other types of expenses."
Joining Taillon as an unlikely spokesperson for the cause is Courtney Tanning. A New York University graduate, the striking young blonde shows up to work in nice suits after recently being hired as the executive director of the Colorado Wellness Association, a trade organization representing dispensaries (and for full disclosure, an organization with which my husband, Robert Corry, an attorney, is actively involved).
"Many conventional businesses are cutting expenses, laying off employees, and even shutting their doors for good, but the booming medical marijuana community is in a unique position where they can afford to actively promote their businesses and need to do so in order to stay above their blossoming competition," she said. "This competition supports the struggling print-news business by bringing in a surge of new customers that had not previously been a position to provide them business."
Opponents of medical marijuana rely heavily on two basic arguments. First, they say medical marijuana is just a deceitful way to push for legalization. Second, they hold fast to faulty arguments concerning marijuana's physical impacts.
Even if we assume that the first argument is even partially true, so what? As our prisons burst at the seams, it's simply irresponsible to waste billions of dollars to continue arresting 850,000 Americans annually for marijuana-related offenses. After seven decades of pot being illegal, one in three adult Americans will still admit to pollsters to having consumed marijuana. As we've now proven twice in this country, prohibition simply doesn't work.
The second argument, meanwhile, goes nowhere. Time and again, peer-reviewed scientific studies have proven that marijuana is safer than alcohol or pharmaceutical narcotics. Over-consumption of marijuana has never been tied to a single fatal overdose, unlike prescription drugs, which have now overtaken car accidents as leading source of accidental deaths in Colorado. And unlike alcohol, marijuana has the additional benefit of not leading to increased rates of violence.
Colorado's struggling newspapers and magazines should follow in the footsteps of Westword. While the funky alternative paper prides itself on being unconventional, its decision to embrace medical marijuana is, well, downright prudent.
In America, after all, capitalizing on a business opportunity that is business savvy, morally correct, and socially acceptable is downright patriotic. Let's just hope pot can keep those printing presses running.
Jessica Peck Corry (www.JessicaCorry.com) is a Denver attorney and a public policy analyst with the Independence Institute.