As states that permit sales of only medical marijuana transition to legalizing recreational use of pot, Portland reporter Gillian Flaccus noticed a trend in Oregon: most medical pot dispensaries were closing. She asked why, and what were the effects on patients?
Teaming with Los Angeles-based data reporter Angel Kastanis, the AP set out to answer that question. Kastanis had spent six months compiling a first-of-its-kind national data set on medical marijuana patients, and Flaccus used it to produce an exclusive all-formats package showing that when states legalize pot for all, medical marijuana patients often are left with fewer, and costlier, options.
Kastanis and Flaccus are members of AP’s marijuana beat team, formed last year to cover the exploding cannabis industry. Two-thirds of the states now have legal medical marijuana and that segment of the overall cannabis market generates billions in revenue. But hard data on patients using medical marijuana has been difficult to find because states have inconsistent record-keeping requirements and practices.
To build a national database, 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.
It’s “incredibly useful to see this [data] all in one place, and I can already tell it’ll be a helpful resource for years to come.”
— Marijuana beat team journalist, The Boston Globe
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to historical data, so she used website snapshots from The Internet Archive to obtain official PDF documents that had been replaced by the most recent program statistics.
While Kastanis did her work, 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. She shot and produced the video and took photos, while also writing full-length and abridged versions of the story.
Before the package moved in advance, Kastanis, Flaccus and marijuana team leader Frank Baker in Los Angeles held a conference call with AP data customers to discuss the data and the reporting that would go with it.
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.