Reporting on pot: Dude, where's my source?
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.
| December 1, 2009; 8:36 AM ET
Categories: How I got that story
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