“One of my favorite aspects of cannabis journalism is reporting on the medical research and the medicinal breakthroughs we find there. We know less than 1% of what there is to understand about the cannabis plant and its efficacy, and so we’re consistently coming across new findings and applications that need the megaphone of responsible journalism.”
Ricardo Baca fits well with the title of “the greatest cannabis journalist of our times.” Having joined the industry some twenty five years back when the legal industry was just being birthed, he has “moved earth and heaven” to ensure that cannabis gets appropriate media coverage. And as he puts it, any brand new industry needs a watchdog, and that watchdog is responsible journalism that holds the powerful accountable. His efforts have been well rewarded, now that 37 states plus DC have legalized cannabis to some extent and about 91% of Americans are in support of cannabis legalization. In this brief interview, Ricardo narrates his journey as well as the highs and lows of his long-spanning and productive career as a cannabis journalist.
20 years as a cannabis journalist. What inspired you to embark on this path?
Journalism was 100% my first love, and I worked for daily newspapers—including the Rocky Mountain News, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times and The Denver Post—for nearly 25 years. I was a breaking news reporter, a music critic, an entertainment editor and more, but in 2013 The Post’s editor in chief appointed me as the world’s first-ever Cannabis Editor, and from there I covered the implementation of regulated cannabis markets in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, D.C., California, Canada and beyond. While I was lucky enough to work across multiple compelling beats, I especially loved being one of the world’s first serious cannabis journalists—especially because journalism is all about holding the powerful accountable, and my colleagues at The Denver Post and The Cannabist and I truly did that. And if any industry needs a watchdog, it’s a brand new industry—like cannabis.
You have received several accolades for your noteworthy contributions to the cannabis industry, including being named as the Marketer of the Year by AdCann in 2019 and 2021. What do you attribute this success to?
With every accolade I’ve been a part of—from the Marketer of the Year nods you mentioned to Grasslands’ Clio Award for cannabis PR to the agency’s Small Business Award from The Denver Business Journal—everything comes back to the people who surround me. At Grasslands, we practice a team-centered approach to cannabis marketing, and so if any individual or team brings home the gold, it is always shared by all—something that is enshrined in our core values. Of course, I am thankful to be surrounded by world-class professionals and truly thoughtful cannabis marketers and PR professionals—and that makes all the difference.
What have been some of the biggest obstacles that you have had to deal with in the span of your trailblazing career in cannabis journalism and cannabis marketing?
Making the jump from cannabis journalism to cannabis marketing has been the adventure of a lifetime—and also my most significant challenge. While my background in journalism certainly informs all of the cannabis PR and marketing we do at Grasslands, I’ve also had to pull some late-night study sessions to ensure I’m staying up on the most important Google updates and PR philosophies. It helps that I have a team of 26 full-time colleagues, most of whom have degrees in marketing, comms and public relations—and that’s where so much of the Grasslands magic is. We have veteran marketing and PR pros putting their heads together with experienced journalists to create meaningful ideas for our clients, and that Grasslands hive brain is a truly powerful force, as we’re looking to amplify the work of our clients.
As a journalist, you covered several sectors of the cannabis industry; drug policy, laws and regulations, medical research, cannabis business and culture. Is there a particular area that you are most inclined to?
One of my favorite aspects of cannabis journalism is reporting on the medical research and the medicinal breakthroughs we find there. We know less than 1% of what there is to understand about the cannabis plant and its efficacy, and so we’re consistently coming across new findings and applications that need the megaphone of responsible journalism. I remember when the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine first released its landmark report in January 2017—that was a monumental day for the medical cannabis movement, and for the scores of patients who had experienced these benefits well before science had legitimized the findings via clinical trials. For a mainstream medical organization to acknowledge cannabis as medicine and an efficacious treatment for pain was substantial, and it very much inspired my first TEDx Talk as well as my upcoming presentation at SXSW 2022. And of course this is only the tip of the speer, as we have so much more to learn in the years and decades ahead.
In 2016, you took an entrepreneurial detour and launched Grasslands? What inspired this decision?
My goal with starting Grasslands was to create a different kind of communications firm—a journalism-minded agency that approached the work of cannabis marketing and cannabis PR from a different lens. The inspiration for starting Grasslands came from thousands of interactions with PR professionals that left me, as a journalist, wanting more. I was consistently appalled at what little thought or strategy PR pros put into their media relations, and I knew it could be done differently—and that’s what we’re doing at Grasslands. We’re doing cannabis PR very differently, because the old way no longer works.
Can you share with us your personal views on the true impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the cannabis industry?
Covid could have wiped out much of our legal industry, were it not for the essential designations granted to cannabis businesses in most states. When the pandemic first got real in the U.S., I started writing op-eds to encourage lawmakers and regulators to think sanely and keep these cannabis businesses (a.k.a. channels for patients’ medicine) open—including this national piece in mg magazine and this local-to-Colorado piece in Westword magazine. I’m so glad that most government officials (outside of Massachusetts) did the right thing, and that positioned the cannabis industry to truly stretch out and thrive through Covid.
You’ve been in the cannabis industry for a significant period of time which qualifies you as cannabis futurist. What are some of the trends that we are likely to observe in the industry in 2022? A comment on NFTs for the cannabis industry?
The intersection of cannabis and crypto is one of the most intriguing cannabis marketing trends emerging in 2022. As we see some of these blue-chip NFT collections develop legitimate communities around them, I see a lot of potential for cannabis-aligned NFT collections to create wholly unique communities, both IRL and in the metaverse, with extremely involved engagement levels. The leader of the cannabis NFT pack is Crypto Cannabis Club, as everyone from Cookies Founder Berner to Cheech and Chong have their own Tokers. And as Forbes recently pointed out, CCC is already expanding their brand into real-life dispensaries—with Crypto Cannabis Club-branded THC products landing in select California retailers this month. That they’ve been able to bridge that gap between the real and digital worlds so quickly speaks to their strong strategy, and also their community’s rapid adoption.
Thank you for the great interview and for all of the work that you have done to help move this industry forward, readers who wish to engage Ricardo further should check the Grasslands website.