Posted in Behind the News

Data illuminates marijuana legalization impact

, by Patrick Maks

In a memo to staff, Managing Editor Brian Carovillano recounts how members of AP’s marijuana beat team created a first-of-its-kind national database of medical marijuana trends and revealed how the legalization of pot has often hurt medical marijuana users:

To build a national database, Los Angeles-based data reporter Angeliki Kastanis reached out to the individual states and Washington, D.C., to get the latest numbers on how many patients were enrolled in medical marijuana programs. It quickly turned into a larger project, aimed at getting historical counts and demographic information to track trends.
Kastanis submitted dozens of formal records requests, combed published program reports and other available public documents, and searched media reports. In some cases, states no longer had access to historical data, so she used website snapshots from The Internet Archive to obtain official PDF documents that had been replaced by the most recent program statistics.
Two-time cancer survivor and medical marijuana cardholder Bill Blazina, 73, smokes a marijuana joint on the deck of his neighbor's home in Waldport, Oregon, April 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus)
Meanwhile, Portland reporter Gillian Flaccus was hearing anecdotes in Oregon – one of the first states with a legal recreational market – that the medical industry was cratering.   
Patients who used marijuana to ease paid and address other ills felt abandoned. The data reinforced what she was hearing: Nearly two-thirds of Oregon patients had given up their medical cards and the number of retail shops dedicated to medical pot fell from 400 to two after recreational legalization. And prices were going up as a result of competition from recreational pot. Flaccus traveled the state for two months gathering video and interviews from medical pot growers, processors and dispensaries. After many failed attempts, she found an elderly cancer patient willing to talk on camera about his struggles affording products. Two other team members – medical reporter Carla K. Johnson in Seattle and West Desk editor Katie Oyan – made major contributions to the package. Johnson authored a medical marijuana fact-vs.-fiction sidebar while Oyan edited the stories and developed a presentation plan that included a series of GIFs for Twitter, stacking the story and featuring it in the AP marijuana hub.
Flaccus’ story was one of the most popular on AP with strong reader engagement. The Boston Globe created its own marijuana beat team last year and one of its members sent an email thanking AP for the data, calling it “incredibly useful to see this all in one place, and I can already tell it’ll be a helpful resource for years to come.” Indeed, the data set is just a foundation. As more states enter the market and compile information Kastanis plans to update the data twice a year, allowing AP and its subscribing data customers to track trends in this burgeoning industry at the state, region and national level. For making the AP the go-to source for data trends on medical marijuana and shining a light on the unexpected negative consequences for patients of legalizing recreational pot use, Flaccus and Kastanis earn AP’s Best of the Week honors.

Read the exclusive AP analysis online.