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AP exclusively breaks news that DEA moving to reclassify marijuana as a less dangerous drug

In this Friday, March 22, 2019, file photo, a marijuana plant is visible at Compassionate Care Foundation’s medical marijuana dispensary in Egg Harbor Township, N.J. AP PHOTO / JULIO CORTEZ

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White House Correspondent Zeke Miller, Latin America Correspondent Joshua Goodman, Investigative Reporter Jim Mustian and Washington Reporter Lindsay Whitehurst combined forces to exclusively break the news that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is moving to reclassify marijuana as a less dangerous drug, a historic shift that could clear the way toward easing federal criminal penalties on pot at a time when President Joe Biden is seeking the support of younger voters.

The DEA’s biggest policy recommendation in its 50-year history had been highly anticipated and hotly contested by every major news organization. In the end, AP’s bombshell story last Tuesday left competitors scrambling to match AP’s reporting and give AP full credit for being first.

This break had its roots in the deep source-building Goodman and Mustian have done over the past five years while pursuing a separate line of reporting on widespread corruption in the DEA. During a brainstorming meeting more than a month ago, they noted the repeated rumblings they had been hearing about the marijuana reclassification issue, which had been sitting on Administrator Anne Milgram’s desk for more than six months by then. So they decided to plant some seeds with sources close to the administrator and her leadership team.

Then, late last month, two of those sources came back with the scoop on condition of anonymity: The agency had signed off — shifting pot from its current Schedule I classification alongside heroin and LSD to the less tightly regulated Schedule III with such drugs as ketamine and some anabolic steroids — and that recommendation was being sent Friday, April 26, to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget for circulation among federal agencies.

That was good, but Goodman and Mustian felt that on such a big story they needed a confirmation from the White House to put them over the finish line. So they reached out to the AP’s Washington bureau and White House reporter Zeke Miller, who quickly began working his sources and getting some encouraging replies. By midday last Tuesday, he got that third source.

Meanwhile, Whitehurst, who had been covering the DOJ and had been working for months to also try to break the news, also had been told by sources that a decision was coming soon and had written prep for when that would happen. Bolstered with new reporting and reaction by Goodman, Mustian, Whitehurst and Miller, the prep was updated, and as they were finalizing the urgent series, two more confirmations on condition of anonymity came through, bringing AP’s total sources to five.

Once the news broke, the AP followed in the ensuing hours with another APNewsAlert on Attorney General Merrick Garland endorsing the DEA proposal, a politics sidebar by Jonathan J. Cooper on how this is Biden’s latest attempt to reach out to younger voters and a “What It Means” glance by Jennifer Peltz and Whitehurst that unpacked the nuances of the order, such as how it stopped short of immediately legalizing pot and could greatly reduce the tax burden on marijuana businesses in the 23 states where recreational consumption is already legal. That was also neatly presented in an AP video narrated by Whitehurst.

The newsbreak ranked No. 1 on the AP digital platforms. Play for the What It Means sidebar was also strong and helped drive traffic back to the main break. AP’s beat also scored top play on every major news website, made at least 24 major newspaper front pages and even opened the monologue on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher.”

For strong, fast, exclusive reporting that put the AP out front to drive the conversation on a historic policy shift on pot, Miller, Goodman, Mustian and Whitehurst are Best of the Week — First Winner.

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