Why Cannabis Coverage Needs to be a Serious Beat
In early 2014, John Ingold, a longtime reporter for The Denver Post, noticed that the number of parents of young patients registered with the state to gain access to medical cannabis had grown from dozens to hundreds. They came from across the nation and the globe—Oklahoma, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, even Ireland. They sought an oil created from a high-less compound in cannabis, cannabidiol (CBD), which parents hoped would control their children’s seizures, which were resistant to other medicines.
What more than anything else propelled the influx of desperate parents into Colorado was “Weed,” a documentary by CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta that aired in the summer of 2013 and was watched by an audience of 1.21 million. In it, Charlotte Figi, a then 6-year-old girl with a severe form of epilepsy called Dravet Syndrome, goes from having hundreds of seizures a week to only a couple of small episodes a month after she starts taking CBD.
While clinical trials related to CBD are currently under way in the U.S., there is no conclusive evidence that CBD is effective in Dravet Syndrome cases. In some cases, there might be a placebo effect. Indeed, Ingold reported on a study that found that families who migrated to Colorado were three times more likely to say cannabis helped their kids than those already living in the state.
Seeking not a story only of science but one of human longing for a medical miracle, Ingold, photographer Joe Amon, and videographer Lindsay Pierce collaborated on a feature about one family reflected in the soaring number of minors registered for medical cannabis. Ana Watson, a mother moving her family from North Carolina to Colorado to pursue treatment for her 12-year-old son, Preston, who also had Dravet Syndrome, agreed to give them access.
Over the course of nine months, a team of 12 at the Post came together to produce “Desperate Journey,” a three-part series that also included photos, videos, and illustrations to tell the Watson family’s story. The Pulitzer Prize Board in 2015 selected “Desperate Journey” as a finalist, saying the series was “an intimate and troubling portrayal of how Colorado’s relaxed marijuana laws have drawn hundreds of parents to the state to seek miracle cures for desperately ill children.”
At a time when roughly 200 million Americans live in a state with some form of legalized cannabis, the need for in-depth reporting about the drug is urgent. Patients, doctors, researchers, regulators, recreational consumers, and industry members are arguing over whether to focus on the plant’s pharmaceutical potential or to treat cannabis like alcohol, all the while vigorously debating regulations that dictate how the plant is grown, tested, packaged, and sold. As a result of the discrepancy between the legal status of cannabis at the state and federal levels, and among states, reporters are left with little precedent and no central authority to turn to for data, sources, and research. Many journalists find themselves in new or unfamiliar roles, sometimes taking positions, sometimes becoming part of the story.
Photo credit: John Minchillo