In the January 19th edition of Newsweek magazine, I write about how the legalization of recreational marijuana in California may not be the silver bullet that ends Mexican cartel’s involvement in California weed. The piece focuses on the small California county of Calaveras, where local officials are struggling to get a grip on a recent boom in marijuana farms. It relies on state and federal documents, news reports, interviews with county and federal law enforcement, and interviews with a federally-funded scientist who has investigated more than 120 illegal marijuana farms on public lands. In total I interviewed about three dozen people for the piece, and spent more than a year monitoring events in the state before publishing.
You know that new adage “don’t read the comments”? Yeah, I didn’t heed that this time. So I’m writing up this note because I think journalists are more accountable to the public than they are to their outlets. I also think they have a right to defend their work when it gets criticized.
As I investigated for this article, I realized that there’s a stark difference between the soundbites surrounding legalization, and the firm grip that drug trafficking organizations have on narcotics production and distribution in California. They’ve had this grip for decades. California’s recreational marijuana system, on the other hand, is 14 days into its trial period.
A few readers thought the online version’s first title was over-the-top: “Mexican Drug Cartels May Use Legal Marijuana To Take Over Northern California.” Sometimes journalists don’t get to decide the title of their work before it gets published, and this was one such case. I asked my editors to change the title to “Mexican Cartels Show No Signs of Leaving California’s Weed Industry.” They didn’t accept, but they did change the title to something that, I think, is less incendiary than the original. (In the magazine, the article is called “Kings of the Stoned Age,” which I approved.)
There’s also the challenge of reporting on criminal organizations that invest heavily to obscure their operations. As one of my editors put it, reporting on the cartels is like trying to put a chalk outline to a ghost. It’s tricky, but you can do it because of a network of evidence and anecdotes from sources with verifiable, first-hand knowledge of the phenomenon.
I’d encourage readers to fact-check parts of the article they don’t trust. (My editors and I fact-checked the piece.) If I made an error, please report the factual error to me or my editors and we’ll correct it ASAP.
I’d also say that what stands out to me the most is a frustration that the article doesn’t take a stance on legalization. That’s alarming, to me at least, because such criticisms say a lot about what the media has conditioned us to expect from the media. I’m proud that the piece doesn’t take a stance, even if that does make it controversial. But if you read it you’ll find an interesting, non-partisan fact: after Calaveras started taxing and regulating commercial marijuana farms, the county collected millions in taxes and fees. They used that money to eradicate about 40 black market farms in 2017.
From what I understand, the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office is already gearing up for more investigations into black market marijuana farms this spring. So we know that regulatory fees are helping law enforcement prosecute black market marijuana, which is where cartels thrive.
What we don’t know, however, is if California’s legalization framework is well-designed enough to cripple the state’s black market marijuana industry–the largest and most complex in the United States. It may be a while before we find out.
Thank you for reading. Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions or comments: firstname.lastname@example.org