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Voice of Reason

Jun 19, 2017 09:00PM ● Published by Leland Rucker

He became the world’s first cannabis editor at a major newspaper—a landmark moment in the legalization movement and one that caught the attention of media outlets around the globe. “A weed editor? At a major newspaper? But D.A.R.E. said marijuana was bad!” Jokes ensued, as did media appearances and interviews—perhaps the most notable (if not quotable) of which came during an appearance on Comedy Central’s Colbert Show. The host quips that Baca’s new job as a pot editor was just a gateway job to a meth editor. You may have seen that clip in the opening minutes of Rolling Papers, a 2016 documentary about the first year of The Cannabist. 

Three and half years later, at the end of 2016, Baca announced he was leaving The Cannabist for a then-undisclosed venture. Turns out it isn’t as a meth editor. It’s as an entrepreneur. Baca is leading up a new venture called Grasslands, a creative agency for cannabis. The consulting firm “works with cannabis and hemp businesses to get their message heard, seen, and understood—by customers, influencers, and media professionals,” as the website describes. Baca and his team of writers, photographers, and other seasoned media professionals craft messages that target the mission of various outlets, and work hand-in-hand with journalists to convey stories that might otherwise be missed. Some of their specialties include content writing, graphic design, video and photography projects, marketing campaigns, and other such endeavors. Baca created Grasslands with a very specific purpose in mind: to help cannabis businesses and professionals reach out of the counterculture into the mainstream. 

Baca and I discussed his experience at The Cannabist and his new venture on a spring afternoon at his Lincoln Park home. At least part of the impetus for Grasslands came from his own experience at The Cannabist. As an editor, he constantly saw cannabis business websites with grammatical errors and confusing, unfortunate design. The industry needed a makeover. 

“Now we’re seeing the birth of the first major cannabis brands. We’re seeing 300,000-plus square-feet spaces,” he says. “How does the mom-and-pop shop compete when you can grow in 300,000 square feet and undercut prices on every level?” 

With better marketing, that’s how. 

What it means is that cannabis companies today, especially smaller ones, need to present themselves to regulators, customers, and competitors with more than just their game faces on. “That’s what we hope to offer, to help people with writing and editing, graphic design and photography as well as video work,” he says.

Now in the fourth year of recreational sales and still burdened by federal and state regulations, cannabis wants to be treated like any other industry, Baca notes, so it needs to start acting like it, which means having fundamentals like a coherent web presence or a professional sizzle reel to introduce you to potential investors and customers. “I can bring a prominent and relevant aesthetic to the space and help businesses get their things in order,” he explains. 

Grasslands is already working with clients in Colorado, California, and Canada, which recently announced its intent to legalize cannabis for adults. Baca and his team of ex-journalists, having spent years on the receiving end of marketing and publicity campaigns, have an edge when it comes to crafting their messages. They’re fluent in flackery. 

“Cannabis companies are really mastering the business side, and I want to help them present that business side in a better and more professional way. I know what it takes to get the attention of other journalists, and so I’m hoping to help them move forward.”

He admits that there are many who wondered why he would leave The Cannabist at a time when readership has now surpassed popular, online sites like High Times and Marijuana.com. “I think that a lot of the people who have been following me since I’ve been writing about cannabis are like, ‘wait a minute, you just got here,’ you know, ‘things are just taking off,’” he says. “But at the same time, I wasn’t at the Post for only the three years I was at The Cannabist. Twelve years is a very long time to be working for any institution, and the time came that it was just a good opportunity to leave.” 

Running The Cannabist from its local inception to a national go-to-cannabis site was, he says, an amazing experience. Baca saw The Cannabist as a chance to work at an institution that has a history of covering marijuana negatively but recognized the need to adapt.

“This was suddenly the new beer,” he explains. “Recreational marijuana flipped the script and changed everything about the way we cover this substance. It meant hiring pot critics and gear critics and going into that full extreme but also reporting the news, with investigating reporting and the business side. Once we saw that our visions ultimately aligned, it was a natural decision to run with it, and I was really thrilled at the opportunity.”

Having the backing of a major media outlet carried its own baggage, especially since the Post had editorialized against Amendment 64, but the paper’s depth and access to local, national, and international talent really beefed up its coverage. “We benefited from having access to the Post and its many award-winning excellent journalists, and it was great for us to get a little bit of distance from it for our credibility.”

The San Francisco Chronicle has announced plans for a marijuana-specific site, but otherwise, there’s not a lot of cannabis journalism going on in the newspaper space, especially business coverage. “Let’s hold them accountable when they mess up and celebrate their successes because they are operating, in many cases, successfully under the burden of tremendous regulations and expense,” he says. “If you’re succeeding, you deserve a pat on the back, and we loved writing those stories as well.”

Beyond Grasslands, Baca is keeping his hand in journalism, lending his expertise to mainstream magazines such as Esquire as well as niche glossies like the California-based Cannabis Now. {Editor’s note: Baca is also joining Team Sensi as a monthly columnist starting in July. Look for his new column on the crossroads of cannabis and culture in the next issue.} 

Most notably, in April, he announced a new weekly column for The Daily Beast titled “Joint Venture” and focused on the evolution of the newly legal cannabis industry—and the people driving it. A weekly cannabis column in a national media outlet like the Daily Beast is a pretty big deal, a landmark moment in the normalization of a plant that’s still completely illegal in 21 states. Those states are at the beginning of what he has described as the legalization cycle: Legalization —> Normalization —> Commercialization. His columns, articles, and commentary are part of the Normalization Phase; Grasslands is Phase 3. 

And look for him to be writing about more than just bud. “One element of journalism I’d like to learn about and get more involved in is writing about psilocybin mushrooms and the movement to study those and potentially legalize them for medicinal and pharmaceutical use.” He says he’s experienced the power and impact of these substances, both creatively and medicinally. “I’m confident that some of the current legitimate research being done in the field will open up our minds even further to how these drugs could benefit humanity—on a micro and macro level.”

And so you’ll be hearing more from him about this in the coming months. “I truly believe it’s the next frontier as we continue to develop more humane and less harmful drug policies.”
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