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Marijuana media is buzzing as legal pot gains territory

March 24, 2015, 8:00 AM UTC
Los Angeles City Council Votes To Ban Medical Marijuana Dispensaries
Marijuana plants.
Photograph by David McNew — Getty Images

Last month, a new local magazine premiered in San Francisco filled with stories about pot-friendly politicians and a comic book starring a joint-smoking dinosaur named Budzilla.

The free publication, SF Evergreen, is a bet by the parent company of The San Francisco Examiner newspaper that people will be eager to read about marijuana. Nevermind that the print media industry is dying. The magazine’s leadership see only opportunity. After all, pot aficionados are legion and the industry they support is sprouting like, well, ganja.

“We think it’s well past time for an industry of this size to have media dedicated to it,” said Chris Roberts, SF Evergreen’s editor.

SF Evergreen is part of a marijuana media boom that comes as pot emerges from the black market into legal legitimacy. New pot publications —in print and online — are popping up with regularity while older outlets are beefing up staff.

Cannabis Now, Culture Magazine, Marijuana Venture and Marijuana Business Daily have all opened for business in recent years to cover pot culture along with the financial side of the industry. Meanwhile, last summer, the thee-year old website, hired a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has previously worked at and NBC News, to lead its editorial operations.

The recent proliferation of marijuana media comes as more and more public opinion polls show that a majority of Americans now support legalizing the drug. Medical marijuana is already allowed in 23 states while recreational use is permitted in four, plus Washington, D.C. Several more states could legalize pot in 2016 elections. The drug remains illegal on the federal level, both medically and recreationally.

Amid the increasing acceptance, legal marijuana sales are ballooning. Last year, that market grew 74% to $2.7 billion, according to The ArcView Group, a marijuana-focused venture capital firm. The rise has sparked a coinciding boom in pot media as journalists look to explore the cultural, political, and financial implications — funded, in part by advertising from marijuana dispensaries, sellers of pot-related paraphernalia and suppliers of cannabis farming equipment.

The mainstream media has joined in the push into marijuana coverage. In 2013, a year after Colorado residents approved recreational marijuana in their state, The Denver Post introduced The Cannabist, a website dedicated to the cannabis industry including an editor exclusively focused on the beat along with the paper’s first-ever marijuana critic. At the time, the newspaper promised its readers “the news you need to know as well as the cultural side of what will truly be a historic moment in Colorado history.”

Additionally, the San Francisco Chronicle hosts a cannabis industry blog “Smell the Truth” while Denver’s Westword, the alternative weekly owned by Village Voice Media, has featured its “Ask a Stoner” column since 2012.

Several nationally-read newspapers and magazines (including Fortune) have devoted plenty of ink to the cannabis industry. Last year, The New York Times endorsed marijuana legalization and later ran a full-page ad for a website, Leafly, a Yelp-like service for reviewing marijuana strains and dispensaries. The industry is also well-represented on television, where cable news networks CNN, CNBC and MSNBC have all produced recent series focused on the marijuana industry.

Of course, writing about marijuana is nothing new. High Times magazine, which has been the voice of the marijuana counterculture since it was founded more than 40 years ago, is still going strong. High Times continues to trade on its reputation as one of the cannabis industry’s most reliable sources of information and commentary. As Time reported earlier this year, the pot magazine’s ad pages and web traffic are growing quickly and High Times is seeing solid returns on its events business, which includes “Cannabis Cup” festivals in four U.S. cities with plans for more.

High Times made its own headlines last year when the magazine disclosed plans to create a $100 million fund to invest in the cannabis industry. Despite some initial delays, High Times Growth Fund partner Ivan Wolff told Fortune that the fund has been getting an “excellent reception” and is expected to start securing investments within the next couple of months.

“There’s nobody in the industry that the people at the magazine here don’t know, because they’ve grown up over the last forty years with them,” he said.

And, much like High Times, the rest of the media seems to have grown up in recent years when it comes to marijuana coverage. Once plagued by sophomoric jokes about the pot buddy film Cheech & Chong and the munchies, marijuana’s place in mainstream media has evolved into a far more serious discussion.

Last summer, Al Olson left NBC News to become managing editor of, a three-year-old website with a staff of nearly 10 people that covers cannabis industry news and lets users post their own content like marijuana-themed photos. Olson left the mainstream media because of what he saw as a reluctance among his colleagues to cover the marijuana industry seriously. While he acknowledges that coverage has improved in recent years, he thinks there could be far more about the business aspects, health, international affairs, crime, entertainment and sports.

“It’s an opportunity for other niche sites to really pick up the slack where mainstream is not doing its job,” Olson said.

Last month, the first issue of SF Evergreen featured a cover story on California’s lieutenant governor, Gavin Newsom, with the headline “Citizen Cannabis.” Newsom is a pro-pot politician who plans to run for governor of the state in 2018. SF Evergreen publisher Ari Spanier and editor Chris Roberts said a lot of SF Evergreen’s energy over the next few years will go toward covering the budding political battle over attempts to legalize recreational marijuana in California, where medical pot has been legal for nearly two decades.

The magazine’s parent company is well aware of the print media’s struggles. Recently, it shuttered its long-running and money-losing alternative paper, the San Francisco Bay Guardian. While San Francisco Media Company insists that the new magazine is not a replacement for the Guardian, Spanier and Roberts are adamant that launching a marijuana-focused publication — with a website updated every weekday — is a fairly obvious move in an area where cannabis has been a part of the culture since the flower power era and now boasts 30 medical marijuana dispensaries.

“The population is here. The industry is here. The consumers are here,” Roberts said. But Spanier added that the goal is to reach an even broader market.

“Our view is that anyone walking down the street, smoker or not, would want to pick this up and find some interest in it,” Spanier said.

SF Evergreen has an editorial team of about a half-dozen writers and design staff, many of whom do double-duty contributing to the Examiner and SF Weekly, another sister publication. The magazine printed 85,000 copies for its 32-page inaugural issue and plans as many as many as 40 pages in near future.

Roberts described the response was “overwhelming” and said that callers complained that local distribution boxes had run out of copies. Meanwhile, advertising sales have exceeded the company’s initial goals.

Much of the first issue’s ad space went to local medical marijuana dispensaries and clinics where people can get patient identification cards, a sort of doctor’s prescription. But Spanier expects the advertiser pool to expand, adding that later editions have attracted a local brewery and a handful of restaurants.

“We’re not designing this just for pot-smokers,” Spanier said. “The same people that are patients and recreational users also buy products.”

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