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woman in green with marijuana smoke obscuring her face

Chronic Misperception

Steve Heisler

woman in green with marijuana smoke obscuring her face

How a content marketer with a background in journalism is helping to reverse cannabis stigma—the result of decades of anti-drug propaganda—by focusing on the facts

Children of the 1980s were indoctrinated by Nancy Reagan in the War on Drugs with the infamous tagline, “Just Say No.”

And the propaganda, particularly against cannabis, was relentless. Perhaps the most well-known anti-drug PSA involved an egg and a hot frying pan: “This is your brain on drugs,” said the voiceover, as the egg crackled and browned. It aired across the country in 1987 and has since been parodied countless times. But in 2018, it was reimagined as a pro-cannabis PSA titled, “This is Your Brain on Cannabis.” The spot begins with an egg being tossed into a frying pan, but then a chef adds fresh vegetables and plates the dish, resulting in a colorful, appealing appetizer.

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The video, created by the marketing agency Artisans on Fire, signals a clear shift in public opinion on cannabis: The stigma is being lifted.

“This substance has been misrepresented at the highest levels of authority for so long,” says Ricardo Baca, who runs the Denver-based communications agency Grasslands. “The education campaign that is needed now is so incredibly rare.”

Marketers in the cannabis space are challenged with promoting a substance that has long been the subject of avoidance campaigns. They’re also faced with a smattering of laws that greatly limit where and how they advertise their goods. It’s unexplored, legally ambiguous territory—and the first step is reeducation.

At Grasslands, Baca and his team are helping to change the conversation by representing clients in the cannabis space, which includes marijuana and hemp. Their clients demonstrate a desire to promote cannabis as a substance to be enjoyed recreationally, used medically or generally favored—not demonized. Baca has worked in newsrooms for 20 years, most recently at the Denver Post as the nation’s first “marijuana editor,” and in that time has honed a sense for a compelling cannabis story that values facts over talking heads, cutting-edge cannabis science over Cheech & Chong. Baca takes this knowledge to Grasslands and leads content marketing and public relations efforts like a reporter on the beat—knowledgeable and adaptable, with the ability to serve new information to the public.

The tagline of Grasslands, founded in December 2016, is “A Journalism-Minded Agency,” referencing the newsroom mindset by which Grasslands approaches communications: Sources are vetted, content is synchronized to a news cycle and copy is edited.

It’s a reflection of Baca and the work environment to which he’s accustomed. His job as the marijuana editor found him overseeing the Cannabist, the weed-centric vertical of the Post created in late 2013 just before weed was recreationally legalized in Colorado on Jan. 1, 2014. Colorado became the first legal marketplace for recreational marijuana in the modern world, and the Cannabist would come to be scrutinized on an international level.

Baca spent three years in the position, during which he and his team completed investigative reports, deciphered arcane policy, discussed weed’s role in pop culture and reviewed dozens of strains of marijuana. Much of it is captured in the 2015 documentary “Rolling Papers,” which chronicles the first few weeks of post-legalization and the early days of the Cannabist.

The site eventually delivered gangbuster traffic. In October 2016, a few months before Baca stepped away, the Cannabist raked in 885,000 unique views, beating industry stalwart High Times. One particular multimedia package, chronicling the harrowing journeys to Colorado some families took to secure unconventional cannabis-based medication for their ailing children, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2014.

The Cannabist was a certified success, but Baca still saw the writing on the wall. He watched as long-time Post colleagues were let go and budgets were slashed.

In December 2016, it was time to make his exit. “I was watching colleagues laid off regularly on the [Post] side, yet we were able to hire on the Cannabist side because of readership and how well the site was monetized and performing,” he says. “Eventually, that performance started to dip and it wasn’t as big of a revenue-generator as it had been. I figured if the site was potentially going to see layoffs like the rest of the newspaper . . . I never really felt like I had job security even at the height of the Cannabist’s success and I felt it was time to make a move.”

He set out on his own, with no investments or support, and founded Grasslands. He believed his journalism skills would translate to the content marketing world with his deep bench of cannabis knowledge from his role as marijuana editor, plus he could leverage his industry relationships into clients.

“I had been fortunate enough to develop a new skill set, that of drug policy and what marijuana legalization looks like,” Baca says. “I had a front-row seat to all that, with access to some of the most influential players in the game.”

Content marketing in the cannabis space was difficult in 2016 and remains challenging today because of the substance’s waning and inconsistent legality. Illinois recently joined 10 other states and Washington, D.C. in legalizing marijuana (the law takes effect Jan. 1, 2020); medical marijuana is legal in 22 more states. Yet weed is still designated as a Schedule 1 drug by the federal government. This bars cannabis companies from advertising on Facebook and Google—by far the two largest platforms for advertising. While the science behind medical marijuana still lacks critical consensus, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence available, but companies can’t talk about it at all.

Victoria Mendicino, who serves as the vice president of community outreach at the Illinois-based cannabis producer Revolution Enterprises, explains that marketing a substance straddling the line between federal and state laws is fraught with land mines. “There’s a lot of gray area, which makes things all the more tricky,” she says. “If there were specific rules it would make it easier to follow them.”

Fortunately, Grasslands is led by someone uniquely suited to slash through ambiguity: a journalist.

The website for Grasslands features a list of client criteria. In order to be deemed a good fit, a potential client must demonstrate inclusivity, engagement, transparency and respect for the contributions of journalists.

“We demand on only spreading vetted information. We’re not willing to bend the truth or practice hyperbole,” Baca says. “And because we still abide by ethics and standards, we’re not the right fit for many clients.” He’s had to invoke this clause before, at one point politely refusing to represent an industry stalwart in what would otherwise have been a lucrative piece of business. “He has a complicated past—we’ll just leave it at that,” Baca says. And after conducting research and chatting with others in the industry, Baca didn’t believe this person had outgrown his past misdeeds to warrant taking him on as a client.

It seems odd that a young agency would actively turn down business, but Baca is aiming for longevity. “Once we do find people, there’s so much understanding that we continue to work with them longer than we would clients who don’t have that shared value,” he says. This manifesto of sorts ensures the voices Baca and his team pitch to the media are going to engage in fact-driven dialogue and further the discussion of cannabis as a part of people’s lives.

Once clients are on board, Grasslands runs those accounts like a newsroom. Baca’s first hire at Grasslands was the same person he first brought over to the Cannabist from a different Denver Post assignment desk: Aleta Labak, who works as Grasslands’ copy chief. The content team regularly collaborates with the PR team much like a newspaper would hold an editorial meeting to solicit ideas between departments.

The result is a suite of strong content marketing that captures the attention of the media for its resemblance to, well, actual journalism. Baca says they pitch thought leadership pieces in the same way a journalist would pitch an article, emphasizing a news peg and a target audience that aligns with the publication’s readership. They never link to second-hand sources, such as a piece that quotes a study—only the study itself.

woman's hand holding lit marijuana joint

“So many of the tenets of journalism inform our content creation process,” he says. “News judgment is not something you can study. You learn it in a newsroom, and the only way to understand it is to dive into the news cycle and make those decisions daily.”

Baca interacted with plenty of public relations representatives as a journalist, particularly while he worked as a Denver Post music critic prior to taking the role at the Cannabist. He found many of those interactions lackluster and vows to rectify PR shortcomings at Grasslands through active engagement with media personnel.

“Unfortunately, a lot of publicists happen to come off as extremely lazy: They don’t do the work to personalize pitches, don’t do work to put themselves in reporters’ shoes, don’t do work to make their news release stand out from the crowd by paying attention to the content and the words,” he says. “I believe words matter infinitely, and it was frustrating to see how little thought was put into these things.”

Grasslands approaches PR on a more personal level, often by inviting members of the media to its parties. Face-to-face interactions skirt limitations on cannabis-related communications and allow Grasslands to forge relationships with the folks to whom they’ll be pitching. Many of these parties are attached to conferences like MJBizCon or the National Cannabis Industry Association event. Grasslands also throws the occasional Grasslands Nightcap shindigs, which take place in their Denver office or in Baca’s own backyard. Clients and prospects are invited to network, partake in top-shelf cannabis and sip the occasional CBD-infused cocktail.

While Grasslands has accepted some clients in other regulated industries, such as healthcare and technology, the future of Grasslands seems to remain in the controlled substance domain—now featuring psychedelics. In May, Denver voted to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms, also known as magic mushrooms, and Grasslands is now pursuing an American nonprofit looking to break into that space.

Baca’s thrilled to be continuing the fight against the War on Drugs: “How often in your lifetime do you have the opportunity to cover or work in a brand-new industry that didn’t exist seven years ago?”

The U.S. may be becoming more liberal in terms of drug policy and perception, but traditional marketing and communications avenues are tightening up.

In May, despite continued changes to drug policy across the nation, Facebook announced it would continue to ban advertisers from promoting or selling marijuana, including “drug-related paraphernalia such as bongs, rolling papers and vaporized delivery devices,” according to its posted advertising policies. This also includes cannabidiol, or CBD, the non-psychoactive part of weed. Google lumps marijuana under the headline “Dangerous products or services” and explicitly bans “ads for substances that alter mental state for the purpose of recreation or otherwise induce ‘highs,’” according to its advertising policy on “dangerous products or services.”

Guillermo Bravo, who runs the content agency Foottraffik, says there exists somewhat of a workaround to circumvent advertising restrictions on social media and search engines, but it’s not easy and by no means guaranteed. Step one: Write an ad that mentions your business while avoiding any words directly associated with cannabis use. Step two: Link that ad to a version of your website that’s been scrubbed of all mention of cannabis. Step three: Hope the bots don’t read too closely between the lines. “It’s not a feasible approach,” Bravo says.

Things aren’t much better offline. Laws vary significantly by state, but in California, where medical marijuana has been legal since 1996, restrictions on dispensary advertising resemble the alcohol and tobacco industry. According to PolitiFact, ads are prohibited within 1,000 feet of schools, playgrounds or youth centers, and can only be placed in areas where at least 71.6% of the population is expected to be older than 21.

woman wearing green dress against green background with face obscured by marijuana smoke

Content marketing and public relations offer ways to skate around traditional advertising, as ultimately the company is merely informing, not proclaiming, and the content lives at media outlets or online blogs, not on billboards. But the future of content marketing in the cannabis space is less about physical placement and more about where brands position themselves in the market, relative to other companies.

Larry Mishkin, who serves as counsel at Denver-based Hoban Law Group (which bills itself as “the nation’s premier cannabis business law firm”), sees intellectual property as the biggest barrier to brand identity.

“I can’t get a trademark on Blue Dream right now,” he says, referring to a popular marijuana strain found at dispensaries around the country—or so they claim. “Well, who’s to say what they’re growing is the same Blue Dream as what I’m growing? . . . Customers take for granted that, ‘I know this Blue Dream is close enough, it doesn’t have to be the exact same thing.’ Well, for medical patients that’s a huge difference. And even for adult-use patients . . . the hallmark of effective marketing is if I go and buy a Big Mac in New York or San Diego, you could blindfold me and I’m not going to be able to tell the difference.”

Cannabis brands like Revolution aren’t even allowed to identify the names of the strains they offer, proprietary or not, to the general public. “That could be interpreted as marketing our product,” Mendicino says. “We really rely on our retail partners for that—who don’t have those same kinds of restrictions, of course, because they are the ones who are doing the educating on [our] products.”

It’s up to the individual dispensaries, then, to inform customers that Revolution products include the strains Bear Dance, Florida Orange, Wild Cherry Cola and Gorilla Glue #4. Not even Revolution’s own website lists these names.

Revolution is based in Illinois and is therefore subject to rules set forth by the Illinois Department of Agriculture. Regarding dispensary marketing, the law reads, “Cultivation centers may market their products directly to registered dispensaries or physicians through direct mail, brochures or other means directed solely to the dispensaries and not available to the public.”

Therefore, Revolution aggressively targets dispensaries. They provide branding documents aimed at budtenders, a cross breed of bartender and sommelier, who work at dispensaries and can make recommendations on particular strains. They also maintain a web portal where budtenders can find detailed descriptions of Revolution’s products. Brand representatives regularly visit dispensaries to answer questions as well.

In addition to delivering product information in person, dispensaries are afforded the opportunity to post strains to Leafly.com or similar sites. Leafly acts as a sort of IMDB.com for weed—each strain lives on its own page and includes a description, lineage breakdown, lists of effects (relaxed, euphoric, hungry, etc.) and space for customers to leave reviews. Dispensaries are incentivized to use Leafly because of its location services; each page includes a list of nearby dispensaries where a particular product is available, based on the user’s location.

Bravo, whose agency aids dispensaries with additional marketing opportunities, explains a major conundrum related to medical claims—one of the hottest topics in cannabis today. Dispensaries aren’t allowed to directly make any such claims, yet Bravo says that the two biggest growth markets are baby boomers and women, both of whom are interested in the potential health benefits of cannabis products.

“You have to be somewhat vague on the medical side—you can’t mention any correlation of curing or treating an ailment in any way,” he says. But companies can discuss the basics, such as terminology (sativa versus indica) or methods of consumption (how to use a vape pen). It’s best to start here, he adds, because the average consumer has “little to no education” about cannabis.

Companies can get in trouble for eschewing substance in exchange for sexy fluff. Part of the fear in how weed is marketed, Mishkin says, is that cannabis advertising will follow the path of tobacco and alcohol in sensationalizing the substance to young and malleable audiences. “The devil’s bargain [cannabis companies] make with the prohibitionists is that they’re not going to come out full bore with, you know, gals and sexy bikinis during the Super Bowl to explain why you should be smoking marijuana,” he says.

Companies are still figuring out how to strike the proper tone and reach target audiences without running up against federal and state restrictions. Baca, however, learned how to properly present cannabis to a mass market by practicing every day at the Cannabist.

Before Baca accepted the position of marijuana editor, the job itself made headlines.

A former colleague of Baca’s at the Post noticed a listing in the employment section of the paper—the Denver Post is a union paper, which means every opening has to be advertised even if there’s an internal hire in the mix. They shared the description on social media and it went viral. The job found its way into a monologue on “The Tonight Show” and as part of an episode of “Saturday Night Live.” Baca joined the publicity blitz in December 2013 by appearing on “The Colbert Report,” telling Stephen Colbert, “I don’t smoke pot; I do eat it, though.”

In truth, Baca was by no means a marijuana enthusiast before his role at the Cannabist. He says he hadn’t even “consumed successfully” until 2013, a year after voting for legalization. By “successfully,” he means feeling the effects of marijuana; he tried smoking previously but didn’t enjoy the harshness on his throat. It was a chocolate bar, procured from a medical dispensary prior to recreational legalization, that finally did him in. He says he laughed all night, woke up without a hangover and told his wife he likes weed more than alcohol.

Still, he rarely partakes these days and remains a bit shell-shocked from growing up during the War on Drugs. “I was listening to ‘Just Say No,’ to my teachers and to Nancy Reagan throughout the ’80s,” he says. He didn’t consume a single substance, including alcohol, until he was 21 years old.

Baca found his way to the Post newsroom via the Rocky Mountain News, the vaunted publication that ceased production in 2009. At 14 years old, he delivered editions each morning; in 1995 he secured a scholarship to Metropolitan State University in Denver from the News, making him the first person in his family to graduate from college. He worked for the News in college, enjoyed a stint at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times in Texas after graduation, then landed at the Post in 2002.

At that point, the journalism industry was beginning to see a dip. As the Cannabist prepared to launch, Baca’s colleagues at the Post approached him with feelings of misplaced optimism.

How often in your lifetime do you have the opportunity to cover or work in a brand-new industry that didn’t exist seven years ago?

Ricardo Baca, CEO and founder of Grasslands

“There was this underlying hope that cannabis journalism could actually help save the Denver Post,” Baca says. “That was always sad to me because I knew that if the [Denver] Broncos and the immense readership they bring to the Post properties can’t save the newspaper, then even legal marijuana coverage wasn’t going to make that much of a dent in the bottom line. So I always did my best to manage my colleagues’ expectations.”

At its height, the Cannabist employed seven full-time staff members and actively swayed public opinion and policy reform. One of the site’s first big stories, written by Baca, identified an edibles manufacturer whose chocolate bars tested far below the stated amount of THC; the piece led to statewide changes in regulations. The Cannabist sparked a recall of THC concentrates when they found high levels of pesticides in the product. The site also tackled the term “organic” and what it really means in the cannabis industry. On a less serious note, Baca recruited Whoopi Goldberg, whom he met on the set of “The View” during his early press tour, to write an occasional column for the site.

Since his departure, the Cannabist and the Post have hit upon hard times. In March 2018, the paper abruptly laid off 30 people, one third of its staff, due to extreme budget constraints. A month later, the hedge fund owners of the Post decided to replace the Cannabist staff with bots that comb the web for content to aggregate.

“I would have loved to have stayed. It was my heart and still very much how I define myself,” Baca says. “But I think [Grasslands] was the right opportunity to get out of journalism and try my hand at something new, something that I felt had more of a future.”

Baca vividly recalls his first brush with the War on Drugs. In elementary school, he was handed a sheet of paper with the outline of a man walking hunched over, his stomach full of pills. His class was asked to color those pills—an act of busy work. After actively pressing crayons against the contents of this poor man’s bowels, the children were handed an important lesson: Just say no.

“I really felt our primary purpose as journalists in that nascent era of legalization was to educate the public not just about cannabis, but also what we were told that was just simply untrue,” he says.

Baca still works as a journalist on occasion. His word carries weight in the niche of legalizing controlled drugs; he recently wrote an op-ed for the Denver Post about the piece of magic mushroom legislation that passed in Denver. He has also continued to host a podcast called “Cannabis & Main,” which explores how cannabis is infiltrating business and culture. Episodes include the pragmatic “Cannabis & Corporate Social Responsibility,” the ephemeral “Cannabis & Diversity” and the kooky “Cannabis & Sound Healing.”

These thoughtful communications about cannabis are a far cry from what existed in the 1980s, when anti-drug messaging was convoluted at best, questionable and terrifying at worst. Some attempted to couch its scare tactics within a fried egg. Others, particularly one “scare film” from 1989, delivered anti-marijuana news bites via a man in a ski mask nestled alongside two teens, as kaleidoscopic visualizations pelted his silhouette. But as marijuana legislation loosens, so do the lips of cannabis enthusiasts and medical patient advocates. The fact that Grasslands hosts parties during which weed is available and encouraged is not going to be novel at some point. Baca wrote about this phenomenon in a piece for the Cannabist in 2014, about what his life has been like after covering Colorado legalization. He marveled that his friends were willing to use their full names for the story and admit, on the record, that they liked weed.

As the first-ever marijuana editor, Baca reported on the cultural acceptance of cannabis as an everyday occurrence, whether it’s watching someone spark up on television, the street or your grandmother’s retirement party. Now a marketing professional in the cannabis space, he has established himself as the ultimate thought leader—someone with the knowledge and savvy to talk about cannabis with clarity and authority.

Much of this can be attributed to journalism, as the tenets of accuracy, advocacy, curiosity and adaptability are required skills to navigate an industry that, not long ago, was illegal.

“I think I’ll end up dedicating much of the rest of my life to spreading quality information about substances,” Baca says. “We should be applying journalism to everything we do for the rest of our lives.”

Photos by Lisa Predko; art direction by Vince Cerasani.

Assistants: Tom Michas, Tony Esparza; intern: Olivia Leonardi; model: Andrea Donadio; hair & makeup: Megan Roberts; retouching: Tom Michas.

Steve Heisler is a copywriter, content marketer and journalist who has been published in The A.V. Club, Rolling Stone and Variety.