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Reporting on pot: Dude, where's my source?

joelee.jpgRecord-shop owner Joe Lee was happy to talk THC. Others, not so much. (Bill O'leary/TWP)

Trying to get pot smokers to return a call from a newspaper reporter is enough to confirm certain slacker stereotypes. A call, brokered by an intermediary, is promised for Monday, which turns into Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday…

Dude, where’s my source?

Eventually, though, they did call. Apparently, these pot smokers were more overworked than overstoned: one regular marijuana user I approached about my story on pot users becoming more open about their habits was a lawyer so busy he made a date to talk to me for 15 minutes a week later. I talked to 13 marijuana users and five of them agreed to let me out them, by name, as regular users of a still-illegal drug.

It was easy to get pot legalization activists to talk on the record, but even for them, it was a step into the unknown to move beyond a policy discussion and admit in the newspaper that, yeah, they do smoke the stuff. Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said he has only recently dropped the standard “experimented in college” dodge.

“It was just this year I made a decision to speak about this in the present tense," Nadelmann said. “I do still smoke the occasional joint.”

Certainly Keith Stroup, the founder of NORML and dean of legalization activists, has never been shy about his Willie Nelsonian lifestyle.

But the bigger reporting challenge was to reach civilian smokers and persuade them to speak in public about evolving attitudes toward their drug of choice. One way to do that would have been to track down my junior high school shop teacher, whom I bet is still toking away in some cabin in Georgia. The other was to start with the activists and then begin boring deeper into the sizable-but-shrouded world of pot smokers.

Nadelmann and others circulated my request to known smokers (known to a small circle, at least) and I began to hear from folks. Some of them were activists; Zach Brown, head of the NORML chapter at the University of Maryland, gave me an on-the-record interview about his smoking habits (never on campus, he was quick to say), and so did his mother (she’s not a smoker, wishes Zach wasn’t either, but spoke proudly of his willingness to stand up publicly for a change in the law).

Other sources were not involved in the pro-pot movement at all; one press secretary to a member of Congress told me pot smoking was “pretty common” among Hill staffers on both sides of the aisle, and “rampant” among Washington’s young professional class generally.

In the interest of burrowing deeper and extending the reporting well beyond activists who already had a stake in the issue, I asked everyone I spoke to to give my name and number to pot users they might know, which began to take me several degrees away from people who were involved in the legalization movement. That’s when I spent some time waiting by the phone.

Some of these thrice-removed contacts were skittish. One middle-aged attorney who initially said I could use his name changed his mind after his daughter advised him to keep his mouth shut. One video editor who felt passionately about legalization said his mother-in-law would give him no end of grief if she found out about his daily hits. An executive in Montgomery County who took up occasional smoking after seeing how much relief it offered to her terminally ill mother a few years ago said her company’s employment policies could mean the sack if she came clean.

But I was surprised by how many folks were quick to say, sure, use my name. Each of them said the shifting public mood made them more likely now to go public than they would have been in past years.

The one exception was Florence Siegel, an 88-year-old New Yorker and daily smoker who appears at the end of my story. Putting her name in the paper was no problem at all, she said: She’s been talking openly about her habit for years.

By Steve Hendrix  | December 1, 2009; 8:36 AM ET
Categories:  How I got that story  
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Bravo for writing about this. A lot of people smoke pot and it's not a big deal for most of them. 100 million Americans admit to government survey-takers that they've used it. Nearly 15 million acknowledging use in the past month. And those are just the people willing to admit it.

I don't blame people for being sheepish about this. It's not because they're totally baked......Well OK maybe it is....but regardless, it's very scary. There are 27,900 persons in state and federal prison serving a sentence for which a marijuana violation is the controlling (or most serious) offense at a cost of more than $600 million every year.

Genearlly, I don't like drug dealers and neither do (uh, other) pot smokers. But if one smokes, the law demands that one support the virtual monopoly on production and distribution to criminals, including brutal Mexican gangs. I buy wine at a nice store, why can't I also pick up a small bag?

Posted by: blablabla | December 1, 2009 10:54 AM | Report abuse

Yesterday the National Health Institute requested a 4 million dollar grant from congress for the development of a marijuana
"patch" using the chemical compounds extracted directly from the plant. Their reason for the project is that last year over 1 million people "sought" treatment for marijuana addiction.
The National Institute of Drug Abuse has reported that only 10% of the people that use pot ever get "addicted".
When you check the statistics,90% of the people "seeking" treatment for marijuana
are required to do so by the justice system,too avoid jail,or required by their employer because they tested dirty in a drug screening.
The NIH stated that they wanted to develop the patch as a non-smoking delivery system for marijuana,to avoid the dangers of smoked marijuana.
They are developing this patch for the government filled rehab centers to use on their patients.
First,they create the problem by prohibiting marijuana,because if it wasn't listed as a dangerous schedule 1 drug,the rehab centers wouldn't have the 1 million patients,then they develop a "patch" with marijuana in it and sell it too the patients.
With the announced plan to start treating drug arrests with treatment instead of incarceration,they are guaranteed at least a million customers a year for their pot.
Everyone welcome the US government into the pot dealing business.

Posted by: claygooding | December 2, 2009 6:39 PM | Report abuse

This is not the only "medicine" being developed using the chemical compounds extracted directly from the marijuana plant.G&W Pharmaceutical has one in the final stages of testing by the FDA.
Since he ONDCP is required by congressional mandate to fight any attempt to legalize marijuana as a medicine,in any form,where are they when the big pharmaceutical companies are doing it,or a federal agency is doing the same thing.
If marijuana is ok as a medicine as long as it is not smoked,why can't I grow my own and cook it in a brownie or cookie and therefore avoid the terrible dangers of smoking this evil,no medical applications plant?

Posted by: claygooding | December 2, 2009 6:55 PM | Report abuse

Correction to first post:
A pharmaceutical company from Kentucky will be the lucky pot dealer for the governments pot patch.

Posted by: claygooding | December 3, 2009 10:31 AM | Report abuse

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