2015 Topical Reporting, Large Newsroom winner

A Year of Legal Marijuana


About the Project

A 32-year-old Iraqi War veteran with PTSD stepped to the counter at 8 a.m., Jan. 1, 2014, and handed over $59.74 to purchase an eighth of an ounce of pot and some cannabis-infused truffles. With that, Colorado’s wild ride into the historic realm of legal marijuana sales began.


An interdepartmental approach marked The Denver Post’s in-depth local reporting of this transformation, which Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has called “the greatest social experiment of the 21st century.”

After the state’s voters easily passed the world’s first legal recreational marijuana law, officials, consumers, opponents and law enforcement nervously watched the scene unfold. Denver Post reporters, using multiplatform reporting, chronicled the opening and then turned a watchdog’s eye toward regulation, sales, health, banking, pot barons, black markets, taxes, grow houses and addiction.

Yes, we appointed a pot editor, you may have heard. (From SNL Weekend Update: “The Denver Post this week announced that they’re looking for a marijuana editor for their website. They have one, they’re just looking for him.”) But our reporters and photographers have been building expertise in marijuana coverage since 2009.

We began the year by blanketing the area when recreational pot became legal on Jan. 1. Reporters, photographers and videographers crisscrossed the region documenting the giddiness of the marijuana enthusiasts and the marijuana curious.

Central to our strategy was a commitment to critical reporting. But, the budding industry was approved by almost 60 percent of Colorado voters, so we were determined to speak to the culture as well as the concerns. We created — a Denver Post niche website that explores the lifestyle. We created video tutorials on how to — safely — make a purchase. We employed a critic to explain how different strains might affect the consumer. The site became hugely popular and widely praised for its informative, fun and serious coverage of the cannabis culture.

Do all Denver Post readers approve? Of course not. But the facts are clear: the cannabis industry is booming. More than 130 metric tons of cannabis were sold in the first year. Tens of millions of dollars are being collected in tax money. What once were mom and pop medical marijuana dispensaries are becoming pot superstores.

Among the countless stories we did documenting the ups and downs of the industry’s inaugural year:

  • Colorado’s liberal marijuana laws have attracted hundreds of families desperate for a cure to their child’s epileptic seizures. CBD oil, popularized in television documentaries, had been cited as dramatically reducing or eliminating seizures. In a powerful and personal documentary and narrative story, we followed a family from North Carolina to Colorado on a journey of hope and despair, progress and setbacks. There is hope, but the journey differs for each family.
  • A surprising popularity of cannabis-infused edibles. The problem, of course, is regulation. Standards had not been set and neophyte consumers were ingesting THC amounts far in excess of what is suggested. The Post commissioned independent lab testing that showed the packaging is almost always misleading about the amount of THC in products. Our continued reporting on the issue led the state to begin working on standards — just as it might for any industry.
  • The emergence of self-taught botanists in search of the perfect seed. Just as agricultural companies are trying to engineer the perfect corn or wheat seed, so are cannabis growers looking for strains that provide a better product or stand up to Colorado’s dry climate. The story of Ben Holmes highlights the ingenuity of the industry and the struggle for Federal recognition in the form of a patent.
  • The paralyzing conflict between Colorado law and federal law (pot is still illegal, according to the feds) comes through in many stories. From our yearlong series on Medicine Man, where the owners aspire to be the Costco of pot, readers learned of the huge amounts of cash being taken in and the worries that few banks will do business with the companies. We explored the conflict between family members who wanted to cash out and make a killing and the pressures of building a business the right way.
  • Of course, Colorado’s black market still exists, moving from neighborhood street corners to state-to-state transactions. Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma are all complaining about Colorado’s plentiful supply of pot. Mailed packages containing pot intercepted in Colorado have increased 1,280 percent. There has also been a 397 percent increase in highway confiscations of pot leaving Colorado for another state.
  • There is still evidence that marijuana use is not harmless for everyone. At least one death has been blamed on the ingestion of edible marijuana and experts say just under 10 percent of users will become addicted. The struggle of the addicted was poignantly documented by reporter Claire Martin.

We are treating marijuana like the legal, booming industry that it is.