By JACK SMITH IV
The Denver Post has a new mission: bolster serious coverage of recreation marijuana in light of its de-criminalization in Colorado. After they tapped Ricardo Baca to become the paper’s first pot editor, he was brought on as a guest on the Colbert Report, and everyone from Jay Leno to SNL had their fun of it.
Recreational marijuana is not legal in New Jersey, but we’ve had our own embedded marijuana reporter for years. Based out of South Jersey, Chris Goldstein contributes to a number of publications, including the pot column for Philly.com and his own publication, FreedomisGreen. Goldstein is unashamed about identifying himself as having used marijuana.
“You need a first-person perspective,” says Goldstein. “You wouldn’t be a credible war journalist if you sat there watching a webcam, not feeling the environment firsthand.”
But Goldstein isn’t just some stoner chronicling his high. He takes the work of the marijuana correspondent seriously, and his stories reference culture, policy, activism, chemistry and neuroscience. He believes he adds nuance to a subject that mainstream news organizations cover superficially. “They treat the issue as a cliche,” says Goldstein. “It’s all silly headlines and bad analysis.”
Goldstein started his journalism career in New Mexico after getting involved with the effort to save a local community college radio station, KSFR, from having to sell its license. At 24, he galvanized the retiree community of old network news hounds in Santa Fe, and organized the first fundraiser in the station’s history. Goldstein hosted a few shows in his off-hours, interviewing activists and non-fiction authors. As part of his show, he would read the press releases for National Organization for Marijuana Reform Laws (NORML).
In 2006, NORML asked Goldstein if he’d produce a podcast for them full-time. “I was skeptical about there being enough to fill a daily show with marijuana content,” he says. “But there was.” iTunes had just added “Podcast” as a category, and more people were listening to marijuana news from NORML than podcasts produced by the Pentagon and other governmental organizations. Goldstein became one of the few (and earliest) paid podcast journalists.
The next year, Goldstein founded his own site on the subject, Freedom Is Green, hiring Beth Mann as a marijuana writer and Jahan Marcu as science editor. “We wanted to create a website where we had paid writers for East Coast policy moves, with a focus on science information.”
When he relocated back home to South Jersey in 2009 to be with family, he joined the local NORML chapters and came to believe that New Jersey and Pennsylvania were miles behind other states on the issue.
Despite New Jersey’s foray into medical marijuana, signed into law in 2010, the state’s legalized medical marijuana program is considered the strictest in the country. “Since we’ve passed the law, patients and doctors know that marijuana works for them, but nobody is able to participate,” Goldstein says.
Goldstein has called Jersey’s medical marijuana initiative a failed experiment, writing for Philly420 that the program puts the needs of patients secondary to those of prosecutors and pharmaceutical executives. The program is set to expand, but patients still struggle with access to their treatment.
Meanwhile, there are signs that public opinion in NJ is beginning to support looser marijuana laws. A 2013 poll by the Drug Policy Alliance put support for legalization at 61%. More recently, a Fairleigh Dickinson poll put the percentage approving legalization of recreation marijuana at just 41%, but noted that was higher than the percentage than favored online gambling, which became legal in NJ in November.
And NJ state Senator Nicholas Scutari announced last month that he will introduce a bill to legalize marijuana.
Goldstein admits that he is both a journalist and an activist, sitting on the board of a number of marijuana reform advocacy groups. But he is transparent about his advocacy.
“My bias is clear,” he says, “I’ve been very consistent about what I advocate for, which is getting marijuana out of the controlled substance category.”
Starting early 2013, Goldstein initiated a series of gatherings in Philadelphia where participants would smoke weed publicly in protest, going month after month without trouble. When they arrived in May, 2013, the 100+ protesters were met from an enormous number of law enforcement officers from across seven agencies.
“These guys didn’t come with zip ties and pepper spray,” says Goldstein. “They came with bullet proof vests, automatic weapons, and metal handcuffs.”
Goldstein was cited in June and received a standard $175 fine. Law enforcement was sporadic month by month. Goldstein says he was ignored in July, even when he offered park rangers a hit. But when he was cited again in August, the option to fine Goldstein was inexplicably withdrawn, and now he faces penalties of up to six months jail time, six months probation, and/or fines of $1,000 and upward.
He was charged federally despite the fact that the Obama administration has publicly stated it isn’t interested in expending federal resources on individuals smoking pot recreationally. Goldstein worries that, despite victories for marijuana smokers in Colorado and Washington, those victories are still vulnerable as long as the federal government classifies marijuana as a controlled substance.
“Everything could change with a new presidential administration,” he says. “Think about a President Christie or President Cruz, and how their justice departments would act.”
Jack Smith IV, a recent graduate of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University, is a freelance writer and reporter and a regular contributor to Medium.