If the new political age has spawned anything, it is a renewed focus on “fake news.” Many contemporary consumers are now hyper-focused on the veracity of the news that they consume, particularly if it does not support world-views they already hold. But what if there is little if any way to determine whether the news is actually true?
This is a problem that is of paramount concern in the cannabis space. Inaccurate or false information appears to be proliferating at an exponential rate, and shows few outright signs of letting up. The problem only appears to be getting worse with the liberalization of attitudes towards the plant, signaling major repercussions for the areas of cannabis-related business, journalism, and policy-making.
It may seem counter-intuitive that misinformation may be pervading the cannabis business spheres. After all, the cannabis industry is already valued at over $5-billion annually - a number that is projected to increase fourfold in the next several years alone. So how could such a seemingly thriving industry face such a major problem as a lack of reliable information?
As with many other problems in the cannabis space, part of the issue can be traced back to the government’s classification of cannabis as a Schedule I substance. The level of uncertainty brought about by the multitude of different state and county laws - and the fact that such laws are constantly changing - makes the operation of a cannabis business that much more difficult.
According to Dennis Forchic, the CEO of the horticultural lighting company Solis Tek, the array of state and federal cannabis regulations - which are often in conflict with one another - results in almost no one in the cannabis business space having a completely clear understanding of the terrain on which they are operating.
“The misinformation comes from a multitude of places, especially if you’re not in the industry space. In many states business is being transacted before the final laws have been written or fully implemented. Add in the varying state by state laws with the federal regulations on top and it’s confusing at best,” he says.
Forchic also points out that even those entrepreneurs who believe that they have done their homework are still often left in the dark.
“You can believe you’ve done your due diligence, but if the information you’re getting is inaccurate, or is temporarily correct and is taken in the context of how it’s presented, it is inaccurate.”
The dizzying array of federal and state regulations have been known to confound even the most seasoned of cannabis-industry actors.
So, why wouldn’t the government move to fix these problems? After all, most observers agree sustained and conscientious action by state and federal legislators is what is needed to resolve the confusion.
One of the things holding legislators back is that many are beholden to the same sorts of propaganda regarding cannabis that has bedeviled previous generations.
“Think about reefer madness - this has been happening for 50 years,” says Shauntel Ludwig, the vice president of DaVinci Vaporizers. “A lot of these policy makers are older and are influenced by those things.
“When they see press now that confirms what their thoughts were - marijuana is bad, it’s going [to continue] to be illegal - they are going to go back to those original conceptions they have, rather than looking at new research that has surfaced in the last 5 years. Those same misconceptions are looming.”
The scourge of cannabis misinformation is bad enough among policymakers when those officials are on the lower rungs of power; when those same beliefs are held by those in the upper echelons of influence, the results can be devastating.
Nick Kovacevich, co-founder of Kush Bottles, says misinformation in the federal government has real-time consequences in states attempting to establish or expand their cannabis programs.
“When people say there’s more crime in Colorado [after legalization], that’s just false. It’s not true,” he says. “The U.S. attorney general says cannabis is increasing opioid abuse and crime, and I would suspect that a state attorney general or local prosecutor would use those same talking points to make an argument or to set precedents at a state or local level. It is extremely important to get information correct, especially when we can see how that information, starting at the top, can work it’s way down to actually shaping policy and in some cases law.”
All is not lost, however. Quite the contrary: Dennis Forchic of Solis Tek believes that the changes in public consciousness around cannabis policy will result in policymakers having to take notice.
“I think what is going to happen is: the momentum behind the medical side will continue, and eventually the federal government will come to accept this - when all the federal and state laws and statutes align - you’re going to see the clarity that we need.”
No story about misinformation in the cannabis sphere would be complete without a discussion of the questionable information that is regularly released by cannabis-centric news outlets.
We’ve all seen sensationalist headlines emanating from such news sites: When a big story - or even a mild one - breaks, a cascade of curated stories are disseminated that often times completely obscure the point of the story. Some even miss the point entirely.
Cannabis journalism is still very much in its infancy. According to David Dinenberg, the CEO of Kind Financial, this has resulted in much of the content being produced blurring the lines between journalism and activism.
“We live in an industry that is at the center of activism and business. Without activism, we don’t get our industry... These aren’t falsehoods, they’re spins. Yes, there’s a lot of falsehoods in a lot of the articles that are written, but these articles are written to prove a point, not necessarily about a market.”
While any industry is susceptible to erroneous information, the cannabis space is that much more vulnerable because of the dearth of reliable information. As a result, a sizable portion of the news that is produced is clickbait and is speculative at best, resulting in widespread misunderstandings about where the industry currently stands.
“Misinformation creates a slurry of chatter that takes it in a direction that is usually negative for everyone involved in the industry,” says Nick Kovacevich. “It starts with one headline that is put out there and it devolves into chatter, which disseminates through the industry.”
Yet while it may be tempting to pin much of the public’s misunderstanding of cannabis policy on lazy or incurious journalists, it is also important to remember that many cannabis reporters are victims of the same lack of information as everyone else.
“When you’re writing articles about products that aren’t regulated in a consistent manner, it can be hard to document the validity of what is being reported and written,” states Forchic. “It’s hard to hold a lot of what’s written accountable. If you go out and you buy a bottle of scotch or vodka anywhere in the country, 80 proof means 80 proof. If you look at it, you know what you’re buying.”
It is also important to remember that a great deal of responsibility falls on readers to exercise responsibility when reading about cannabis news. Consumers should exercise due diligence in sussing out the accuracy of what they read before accepting it as fact.
Leslie Bocskor with his advisory firm Electrum Partners is leading the evolving discussion around policy, entrepreneurship, and investment in the cannabis industry, nationally and internationally. As founding chairman of the Nevada Cannabis Industry Association, and with his far-reaching Wall Street background, he’s helping design the models for cannabis industry investment, business and regulation, as Nevada did with gaming. Whether it's big pharma’s long tail or first-mover investors taking advantage of early opportunity, Bocskor's insights and influence have made him a trusted expert and revered pundit on getting in and getting out of cannabis investments successfully.