Demonized Weed

Why is media coverage of Canada’s grow-op “epidemic” so one sided?

When James Roszko murdered four young RCMP officers on a farm in Mayerthorpe, Alberta, in the spring of 2005, law enforcement authorities quickly linked the shootings to violence associated with marijuana grow-ops, organized crime and the need for harsher penalties for pot -cultivation.

Subsequent investigations revealed that Roszko, a man with a long history of violence, had no connection to organized crime and worked alone or possibly with a neighbour growing about 280 marijuana plants. In fact, the officers killed by Roszko had gone to his farm to back up a bailiff sent to repossess a vehicle.

Although most of the early claims about the connection between marijuana cultivation and the officers’ deaths were either incorrect or exaggerated, the Mayerthorpe murders remained indelibly linked, in the media and the public imagination, to the evils of pot production, Susan C. Boyd and Connie Carter argue in Killer Weed: Marijuana Grow Ops, Media and Justice.

“Events at Mayerthorpe and subsequent media reporting operated as a lightning rod that crystallized anxieties about violence, marijuana grow ops, and lenient courts,” the authors observe. “Mayerthorpe provided the specific case that seemed to prove what the police/RCMP and the media had claimed all along.”

Killer Weed sets out to question that “proof.” The book presents the results of a study that examined 2,534 grow-op–related articles published between 1995 and 2009 in The Globe and Mail, Victoria’s Times Colonist, and the Vancouver Sun and Province. While grow-ops include many small operations run by individuals who cultivate plants for personal use, Boyd and Carter identified a mostly “one-sided” narrative that typically linked marijuana production with disorder, crime, criminal gangs, public safety and violence. They argue that this sort of coverage, exemplified by reporting on the Mayerthorpe murders, set the stage for tough, new penalties for marijuana cultivation as well as anti–grow-op initiatives by municipalities that authorize the warrantless entry and inspection of homes and generally give short shrift to Charter of Rights and Freedoms and privacy rights.

Marijuana users in Canada tend to be white, middle class, law abiding and young: Statistics Canada’s 2012 survey of illicit drug use found that 20 percent, or one in five, of people aged 15 to 24 used marijuana in the previous year. That is a big group of young people at risk of a criminal record. “Because of the extent of its use, it has become more difficult to demonize marijuana users; police and media attention has, in turn, shifted to growers of marijuana,” Boyd and Carter contend in their analysis, which focuses on the situation in British Columbia. Reporters covering the story, they concluded, relied extensively on law enforcement officials and politicians who made a series of sketchy claims about an epidemic of marijuana cultivation in Canada, overly lenient sentencing for offenders, links between grow-ops, organized crime and street gangs, and the risks (mould, home invasions, fire hazards) that marijuana cultivation in residential homes poses to neighbourhoods and children.

Killer Weed offers a valid critique of media coverage of grow-ops. It is less successful, however, when it comes to explaining why reporting on this issue was so myopic.

And it was myopic. The authors note, for instance, that although stories regularly quoted police officials on the value and amount of marijuana production in British Columbia, most of those estimates were guesses at best. Marijuana cultivators, after all, do not fill out official surveys on the size and retail value of their crops. Journalists, meanwhile, rarely asked the police to back up their numbers.

Boyd and Carter also question the media’s practice of mindlessly quoting RCMP officials’ claims about the burgeoning grow-op business under the direction of Vietnamese gangs, the Hell’s Angels and other organized crime elements. A study that examined 500 marijuana grow-op cases in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario between 1997 and 2005 found that half of the sites had fewer than 152 plants and only 3 percent had more than 1,000. The 2011 study, by the federal justice department, identified links between offenders and organized crime or street gangs in only 5 percent of cases.

Reporters, it turns out, also relied heavily upon a number of RCMP-supported reports on marijuana cultivation in British Columbia that make the case for harsher sentencing and tougher enforcement measures. News stories failed to mention who paid for the reports and that they were never subject to rigorous scholarly review. Boyd and Carter’s re-examination of the data led them to conclude that the studies paint an exaggerated picture of grow-op proliferation and overstate the number of incidents where firearms were found at grow-op sites. The reports, they conclude, “may have inordinately shaped public perceptions and policy about marijuana grow ops in Canada” and fuelled support for the Conservative government’s Safe Streets and Communities Act. The 2012 legislation introduced longer maximum sentences for marijuana production and also introduced mandatory minimum sentences, including six months for the cultivation of as few as six plants for the purposes of trafficking.

Boyd is a professor in the Faculty of Human and Social Development at the University of Victoria, and Carter is a policy analyst with the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, a network of organizations pushing for more evidence-based drug policy making. Together they did the digging and fact checking that reporters could and should have done as the grow-op story unfolded over the 15 years of news coverage examined in their study.

Where Killer Weed comes up short is in its explanation of the media’s behaviour. Boyd and Carter suggest the newspapers’ approach reflected a “conservative backlash in Canada that holds law and order, punishment, security, the military, and law enforcement agents as symbolic of the nation.” They also identify other factors that contributed to less-than-stellar reporting on the issue, including reporters’ reluctance to challenge official police versions of reality because the news media is so reliant upon officers for information about day-to-day incidents. Police communications ser-vices—the branch that issues the press releases that identify crime-related problems and tout what our men and women in blue are doing to halt the rot—have expanded while journalism struggles on all fronts. Cutbacks in newsroom budgets, and the need to feed the 24-hour news cycle, for instance, mean time-strapped reporters work to ever tighter deadlines that do not allow for extra legwork. The most quoted sources tend to be the most readily available sources, including police officials. And they are hardly disinterested parties: the more crime they highlight and the more press releases they issue about catching bad guys, the easier it is to demand additional crime-fighting resources.

That all makes sense, as far as it goes. But upheaval in the news industry has not prevented journalists from conducting investigations and covering contrarian perspectives on other issues, be it the right to die or racial profiling by police departments. Why the blind spot when it came to grow-ops?

One reason is that there was a consensus—or more precisely a consensus among elites—about grow-ops as a scourge of society. Boyd and Carter occasionally refer to “media” claims about the dangers associated with grow-ops, but in fact most of the time journalists were quoting police or government officials who all sang from the same song sheet. Back in 2004, for instance, it was Liberal public safety minister Anne McLellan who vowed to eradicate marijuana grows-ops and described pot smokers as “stupid.” In 2006, the Conservative government of Stephen Harper took over and pursued policies that focused on enforcement and tougher penalties. The RCMP, meanwhile, has over the years become increasingly vociferous about the hazardous proliferation of grow-ops.

Journalists most certainly should have challenged officials to support their claims that all grow-ops represent dangerous, violent threats to law-abiding citizens. One obvious way to go about this is to find someone authoritative and quotable with a contrary opinion: seeking out this critical voice is standard procedure for keeping stories alive for another day. The trick is to make sure the contrary opinion comes from a source whose opinions are headline material.

Boyd and Carter suggest some alternative voices that reporters could have quoted to provide more balanced coverage of marijuana cultivation. Their list includes scholars who published peer-reviewed research, reports by international agencies, online magazines that support cannabis cultivation and a range of groups pushing for reforms to marijuana laws. However, none of these options has the authoritative heft of elected politicians, or police, fire and public safety officials.

Scholars have tried to make sense of who gets quoted in the news and who is ignored. University of California communications theorist Daniel C. Hallin’s approach, for instance, is to divide the journalist’s world into three spheres. Stories that fall into what he calls the sphere of consensus deal with topics that are not considered particularly controversial. In these cases, journalists do not seek out maverick voices and instead write stories that reflect the consensus and legitimize the status quo. This sort of rote reporting, needless to say, does not serve the public interest particularly well, something that became apparent when the widely accepted “fact” of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction was finally debunked.

Hallin’s sphere of deviance, on the other hand, is the repository of ideas and viewpoints that journalists ignore because they are not considered worthy of being heard: think, for instance, of critics who questioned whether Saddam Hussein really did have those weapons of mass destruction and how little attention they received in mainstream news media.

Finally, when there is no consensus on a topic or if the consensus among key players collapses, stories fall into what Hallin calls the sphere of legitimate controversy. In this case, authoritative sources—Cabinet members or the leader of the Opposition—offer a different perspective to journalists who, in turn, report on the conflict. Gone are the days, for instance, when there was widespread agreement among our political leaders that possession of even a little bit of marijuana merited harsh punishment. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau now both advocate for more relaxed laws related to pot possession, and their position is regularly contrasted in news stories with that of the governing Tories. Mind you, after balking for years, even the Conservatives are starting to display a tiny glimmer of reason: justice minister Peter MacKay has indicated the government is considering new legislation that would allow the police to ticket rather than charge people caught with small amounts of cannabis.

Hallin famously applied his theory to news coverage of the Vietnam War, using it to debunk suggestions that the media became more oppositional as the conflict continued. He argued that there was a general political consensus in support of American involvement during the first part of the war and that news coverage reflected this consensus, with reporters quoting official sources and generally ignoring the arguments of anti-war protestors who languished in the sphere of deviance. As the conflict went on, however, members of the political elite broke ranks to oppose the Vietnam War and lend legitimacy to the perspective espoused by protestors. Reporters duly covered the controversy.

In the case of grow-ops, Killer Weed documents how reporters tended to cover the issue very much like stenographers, recording the official line on the evils of marijuana cultivation as espoused by government and public safety and security officials. If an authoritative voice—say the leader of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition—had challenged that perspective, it is a good bet the coverage would have been -different.

Having said that, a few cracks are beginning to show in the grow-op consensus. In 2006, Health Canada began issuing licences that authorized individuals to cultivate their own plants for medicinal purposes, but almost from the beginning the RCMP warned the process was vulnerable to exploitation by criminal elements. Fire officials fed fears about neighbourhood safety, suggesting many of the grow-ops posed a risk due to bad wiring. Municipal leaders joined in the vilification: two British Columbia mayors wrote to the federal health minister arguing that the grow-ops put neighbourhoods at risk and opened the door to criminal activities and violent home invasions.

On April 1 of this year, the old licensing program was cancelled and replaced with a new regime that limits medical marijuana cultivation to authorized commercial producers. Under this new system, patients have to buy marijuana from these commercial producers after they have obtained permits to use medical cannabis from a medical -practitioner.

The story entered the realm of controversy when a federal court judge ruled that patients previously licensed to grow their own pot can continue to do so until a constitutional challenge of the new system is heard. Plaintiffs who launched the challenge argue the new rules violate their right to access medication by making the drug more expensive and giving them less control over the strains available to them. The judge who granted the temporary injunction agreed.

Even before the court decision, however, there were other signs that the “all grow-ops are bad” consensus was collapsing: in British Columbia the mayor of Mission told the CBC he is “not really interested in going after a little guy that’s growing for his own personal use,” and an Abbotsford police official said the force had no plans to divert resources away from robbery and sexual assault cases to investigate personal medical grow-ops.

All of a sudden, apparently, all grow-ops are not a menace to society, just as all citizens who possess a joint or two are not on the path to drug dealing and ruin. At this rate, it may take only another decade, or two or three, for more enlightened drug policies to become the rule in Canada, rather than the exception.

Killer Weed offers some insight into how it came to this. But it does not tell the whole story.