Remembering The Boston Phoenix For Its Cannabis Coverage

“I went in and immediately smelled … it was redolent with the odor of marijuana.”

It has been 10 years since the Boston Phoenix shut down, leaving the region without a towering alternative news source. Some of us have continued covering issues that are ignored by NPR and commercial outlets while kneecapping the Globe when they stand with the status quo and against subcultures that we support. But none of that changes the fact that around here, the Phoenix was among the first to not just write about grass but to extol and defend it as well.

It may be hard for younger readers to fully grasp what canna prohibition was like at its most absurd, but imagine a climate where literally no major publications would dare to report on weed uncritically or truthfully, and underground journalists—along with their editors and publishers—faced significant backlash including arrest. The same went for the trendsetters at national mags like High Times and Head, but local media was particularly vulnerable.

By the time that I came to work at the Phoenix as a staff writer, from 2008 through the last day in 2013, that risk had diminished. I personally wrote multiple articles and even cover stories on everything from the MassCann Freedom Rally to a guy named John Rockett, who as far as we could tell was the last person prosecuted in Mass for what at that time was a decriminalized quantity. Never once did I face backlash, unless you’re counting all the jabs that I exchanged with prohibitionist farts in the run-up to votes on decrimin and medical cannabis legislation.

When we got the news that more than a hundred of us were suddenly out of the job back in 2013, I rolled a joint right at my desk and passed it around the newsroom like you would around the grave of a fallen associate. As these excerpts that I pulled from the archives and some other online resources demonstrate, the Phoenix was the type of place where you could pull that sort of stuff:

-Here’s a great line from a 2022 interview with iconic New Yorker cartoonist David Sipress, who got his start at the Boston After Dark, a Boston Phoenix predecessor: “I started hearing about this Boston After Dark … and one day I just got up my courage and I took my bag of Xerox copies and I went to the office. And to my surprise the receptionist said, ‘Oh yeah, go right in, the editor’s right in there.’ I went in and immediately smelled … it was redolent with the odor of marijuana. And to my amazement, they said, ‘Sure, you’re in next week.’ And that was the beginning of my 30-year career of being in what then turned into the Phoenix, every single week.”

-While others ignored advocates, the Phoenix paid attention, whether covering attorney Joseph Oteri in the 1970s or the legend Bill Downing in the ’90s.

-The Phoenix also covered those trying to end the War on Drugs from inside the political establishment, like Barney Frank. Here’s Frank in 1973, back when he was a state rep, sponsoring a decriminalization bill on Beacon Hill long before he went to Washington or retired to shill for banks.

-Since it wasn’t like you could rely on mainstream reports to fairly assess demonstrations and developments on the cannabis front elsewhere, the Phoenix often dispatched writers and photographers to Washington, DC to report on the national reform movement, like in this 1976 article.

-Of course there were outlandish tales of smuggling adventures, like a 1981 piece by John Hubner about a 27-ton haul.

-Often, the Phoenix took a step back to assess the state of grass, in pop culture as well as politics, at any given time. In 1977, they reported that Mass was “behind the ball” compared to progress at the national level and in other states; by 1978, they were calling cannabis an “accepted part of American culture,” only to observe seven years later that it was “out of vogue.” A comeback came in 1993, with movement “from the margins to the mainstream” five years after that.

-I also have to give props to my own era and journalists like Valerie Vande Panne, who additionally served as news editor at High Times for a bit. Her 2009 profile on a real-life Nancy Botwin dealing herb in the Hub ’burbs was nothing short of classic, the kind of article that outlets like the Phoenix were made for.

Looking back on all of these, what I feel is most important to recognize and what binds these pieces together is the underlying implication that weed was good, and right, and not in any way the monster that prohibitionists claimed. Even when the Phoenix wasn’t taking a deliberate stance, it still had a position. And that is a tradition that I’m proud to carry on, with Talking Joints Memo and anywhere else that I write about weed.