TG Branfalt: Cannabis Journalism and Reporting On What Matters

TG Branfalt has been writing for Ganjapreneur for the past two years, covering cannabis policy updates and business developments around the country and worldwide every single day. TG has worked as a reporter for Reuters and other media outlets, and he has written extensively on public policy. He developed our comprehensive guide to the nine state-level ballot initiatives that voters will decide this election season and has produced several breaking-news stories that were shared thousands of times.

Going forward, we are excited to announce that TG will also be the new host of our cannabis industry podcast. His first interview will be published tomorrow: be sure to check your email and/or subscribe to our podcast channels on iTunes, Stitcher, and SoundCloud!

Want to get to know the man behind so much of our daily news coverage? Below you will find an interview with TG about his experience as a cannabis journalist and his thoughts on prohibition.

Ganjapreneur: So, when did you decide to pursue journalism as a career, and what led you to it?

TG Branfalt: I pursued journalism for a couple of reasons. A few years before I enrolled in college, I was interviewed by a newspaper about O.J. Simpson making his first public appearance at the mall I was working at outside of Hartford, Connecticut since his acquittal. When I read the article the next day, my quote was incomplete – that didn’t sit well with me. I understand it now, but in my teens this was a great injustice and that’s about when I became interested in being a journalist – some part of me needed to right this “wrong” (even though, looking back it really wasn’t a big deal).

Sitting in the registrar’s office at Herkimer County Community College I still didn’t quite know what I was going to major in (I also considered philosophy and political science) but that reporter popped into my head, and in the span of seconds I remembered that you could make a living with a journalism degree – more so than either philosophy or poli-sci, at least. So I enrolled in journalism and it wasn’t long before I knew I had found something I was passionate about. I just kept on the path when I transferred to UAlbany. My master’s degree in communications from The College of Saint Rose was very journalism-centric, and it was during that program that I really was able to sink my teeth into the craft, not just the practice.

Not to mention I read a lot of Hunter S. Thompson and Gay Talese; and was, for a time, sort of obsessed with the Watergate story and all of the brilliant reporting that came out of that, so that, too, might have something to do with it.

What do you think makes journalism different than other forms of writing?

You’re telling the story of people – that’s really what journalism is. Even if you are covering the mundane – a school board meeting or profiling a crossing guard – there are still stakeholders and people at the core of every story. I still write some fiction as a hobby – but it’s not real. You control what happens to the characters… I’ve covered some very, very strange stories as a journalist – I covered a guy who tried (and with the help of the FBI nearly succeeded in) building a “laser” that shoots radioactive waves – we referred to it as a ‘death ray.’ The guy wanted to be a supervillain – it was lunacy. Sure, that could all be made up, but this is reality, the so-called “fourth branch,” the first draft of history.

You also need to know a little about everything. I have covered the car wash industry, political protests, homicides, court cases – you never know what tomorrow will bring, really – so it’s more exciting to be a news reporter than, say, a poet or novelist, in my opinion.

Having covered the issue of cannabis (and particularly the cannabis industry) extensively yourself as an independent journalist, what do you have to say about how the mainstream media tends to cover it?

It’s truly horrifying. For my master’s thesis I studied how the media uses various biases when reporting on third-party and ‘outsider candidates’ (such as Jill Stein and Gary Johnson) and I have a keen eye for what these biases are and how they occur.

The term ‘marijuana’ elicits negative bias; within insider circles, the term ‘cannabis’ is preferred. The word ‘marijuana’ is associated with reefer madness. In most public policy, it is referred to as ‘marijuana.’ That’s, like, the term used by “the man” – it’s like ‘pot,’ ‘weed’ etc. – these are not normalizing terms to most folks, especially many advocates.

The mainstream media doubles down on reefer madness any chance it gets. The headlines read ‘More Colorado Kids in Hospital for Marijuana since Legalization’ and so few people read past the headline that they miss the meat of these stories. Pharmaceuticals and household cleaners are responsible for more childrens’ hospital visits in Colorado than cannabis – but that’s not the headline. We had Sanjay Gupta on CNN praising the medical benefits of cannabis, but that came years after public opinion had swayed in its favor.

They’ve been toeing the prohibitionist (and government) line and effectively distributing propaganda for so long it’s hard for them to admit that they’ve been wrong all these years.

To what extent do you think mainstream cannabis coverage has shaped public opinion? What has been the outcome?

People have been glued to their televisions for decades and that television has always told them cannabis is a ‘gateway drug,’ “only criminals smoke pot!” People forget that the US ran a Hemp for Victory campaign during World War II – we’re taught and told a revisionist version of the history of cannabis. Many people believe whatever that television tells them and very few seek independent information.

It’s hard to quantify what the outcome has been because, despite all of my negative opinions on the mainstream media and to how it affects its audience, I feel like we (the advocates) are winning – at least legislatively through voter-backed initiatives. But at the same time people are still getting arrested for possession, Malia Obama getting stoned at Lollapalooza is still national news – many people still have that prohibitionist attitude. Perhaps now that more people are Internet-literate they are starting to do some research and realize prohibition is unjust, but you still have a swath of Southern states without even a limited medical cannabis program, so there is still a lot of work to be done to change the hearts and minds.

What has been your most profound experience or revelation while writing about cannabis over the past few years?

Man … prohibition might be the most ludicrous sham ever enacted by a civilized society. I mean, we have people shooting elephant tranquilizer, we have children being able to live normal lives – imagine a world without prohibition. How many people have lived with a lifetime of seizures that could have lived a better quality-of-life if they had access to cannabis? Cannabis has helped many people I know get clean from hard drugs and alcohol – and there are studies that back this up. Prohibition ruins lives – it’s that simple.

I’m not even from the ‘legalize and regulate’ camp. I’m from the ‘our government owes every citizen one pound a month for life’ camp because they kept it from us (all the while holding a marijuana-as-medicine patent).

The government jails people over a plant, the government regulates a plant – it’s maddening. Cannabis isn’t dangerous – that’s it, plain language. Hemp could help eliminate our reliance on fossil fuels – but that, too, is unjustly outlawed.

So I went from being a passive supporter of legislation to sort of a radical who believes that the government should straight up end prohibition and let people grow cannabis and use it as they see fit. It’s, literally, never killed anybody, and any responsible parent is going to keep it from their kid.

What do you think is the most important issue facing the cannabis industry as a whole, and people who are starting businesses in state markets where it is legal?

Lawmakers. I think the regulations are too much – too far reaching. I think individuals should be able to grow their own. But as far as the industry goes, I think the federal government, and its Big Drug, Big Tobacco, Big Booze donors, are going to do everything in their power to get their piece of the pie – and I fear that piece is going to get larger than the piece current operators have. If cannabis is rescheduled it allows it to be put in the hands of pharmaceutical companies – the very same companies that are at least partially responsible for the opioid epidemic. If the drug companies get seriously into the market, not with a synthetic here or there, but if they get their claws in – you are going to see small operators pushed out or even outlawed – I’m serious. If the feds allow drug companies, tobacco companies and alcohol companies to grow, process and sell cannabis it spells the end for any company not operating as such – the independent operators are cooked. They’re already doing this sort of thing in New York and Minnesota – those programs offer an insight into how the government would operate both the medicinal and recreational market – and those programs are ineffective with just a handful of operators.

This is less likely to be the case if it were removed entirely from the Schedule.

People getting into the industry need to find a way to be prepared if the industry is co-opted by these bad actors – or work on finding ways to prevent that from happening.

The only way this would be possible is by electing candidates (from city councils to Congress) who are pro-cannabis and also pro-small business. Because I don’t foresee the feds just removing cannabis from the Schedule list – there will always be regulations – but we need people in government to say ‘no’ to the Big Corporations that don’t usually have the best interest of the community in mind.

What role do grassroots & independent media outlets play in society?

Unfortunately, grassroots and independent media don’t get the respect they deserve, but in the same breath, I want whoever I am getting my news from to be trained. Not saying I want them to have to get a license or anything – but I’d hope that they completed a degree or an internship or worked under a seasoned reporter. Information is important – but the source is everything. Too often am I contacted by someone who has a “scoop” but it’s really a hunch – usually that person is a blogger or “independent journalist” trying to promote themselves or their cause.

I’m not saying that to be an elitist or anything, but one bad experience with a reporter and a whole community can lose a source. I’d like to see people in official capacities give more deference to respectable independent and grassroots outlets and I’d like to see more sites like The Intercept become the “mainstream media.” I freelance for a multi-national media outlet, I’ve worked for a Fortune 500 publisher – I read local and independent news primarily because it’s often less bias; however I sometimes cringe because too often the indy author makes their bias known – to me that’s when you stop being as credible – when you interject your opinion in a piece that does not call for it – and that’s JRN 101. Without independent news sources all we have are the Big Three TV outlets (Fox, CNN, MSNBC), and newspapers and websites owned by conglomerates. You rarely see any visible outlets using Democracy Now as a source – but Amy Goodman is one of the preeminent reporters of our time. We need more quality independent voices because too many people are reliant on “info-tainment” sources.

What is the weirdest cannabis-related story you have ever covered?

The Michigan Cannabis Cup was the weirdest experience I’ve ever had, at least from a culture shock standpoint. The piece I wrote about Malia Obama getting high was weird in that it was actually revered as national news. Recently, the introduction of legislation in New Jersey to legalize cannabis by a Republican struck me as odd, because the sponsor was once referred to as the most conservative legislative member and because Gov. Christie will never go for it.

But the Dan Riffle story really sticks out because there was so much back-biting and whispers, and to Dan it didn’t seem like that big of a deal at all. It seemed that some outlets had really wanted this to be a big deal – they were taking shots at the Marijuana Policy Project – it was a strange moment of disharmony because, in my experience covering the industry, even if you don’t agree with the guy on the other side of the table, you are still sitting at the same table. It just seemed like a lot of unnecessary in-fighting and everyone was more interested in speculation than talking to the players – and this goes back to my critique of some independent news outlets – you have to pick up the phone or knock on a door if you want to be taken seriously. No one seemed interested in talking to Riffle but everyone was putting words in his mouth.

What niche of the cannabis industry do you find the most interesting, and why?

I’m starting to get really interested in the science. As more testing labs open, and more research emerges it’s truly fascinating – there are discoveries being made right now about the endocannabinoid system. The cannabis plant is as old as this planet and we are just now figuring out how our bodies are affected by cannabinoids – it’s remarkable. When I toured PSI Labs I interviewed two people who were as passionate about the science as I was interested in it – and they see it every day, which tells me there are more and more discoveries to be made.

Long before medical cannabis was a thing, I had read that Kurt Cobain had smoked pot to ease the pain of a stomach ailment (likely undiagnosed Crohn’s disease). In high school I suffered a pretty serious knee injury and painkillers always made me sick, so that’s about when I started using cannabis as a pain management therapy – because of what I had read about Cobain – but it’s also when the science of cannabis piqued my curiosity. Now, 15-or-so years later, I have the opportunity to see this research emerge that helps to answer why cannabis has improved my quality of life.

It’s also super-interesting to see cannabis legalized. Despite my personal beliefs, I never thought I would see this happen in my lifetime and I’m starting to believe that I will see prohibition ended on an almost global scale before I’m dead.

If you could share a joint with anyone you have written about, who would it be, and why?

I have always wanted to get high with Woody Harrelson – I wrote about him once when Hawaii was licensing growers. He seems like he’d be a great conversationalist, he’s funny – just strikes me as a rad dude. I’ve always wanted to talk to him about his role in “Natural Born Killers” and how much of that persona was based on his own father, who was a hit man. I’d also want to ask him about growing that hemp plant and calling the cops on himself – it’s such a beautiful act of civil disobedience and, I think, made some people really evaluate prohibition back in 1996.

But of the people I have interviewed or met – the guys at PSI. We chatted for hours when I toured their lab and they knew so much about the science – and they could explain it in layman’s terms which makes it more exciting, vivid. I, obviously, enjoy getting stoned and just shooting the breeze and I could talk to those two about terpenes and chemical compounds for hours. So, Ben, Lev, if you’re reading this hit me up. I did smoke a joint with Dickie Betts of the Allman Brothers. I hung out with him on his tour bus after a festival and I was, somehow, the only guy with papers on the bus.


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