The New York Times made history by becoming the first major national paper to call for the repeal of marijuana prohibition in an op-ed by the Times Editorial Board. The paper of record is continuing to make the case for legalization over a series of editorials, addressing the social costs, racist history and wasted resources from cannabis prohibition.
The decision by, arguably, America’s most reputable paper to take such a stand shows both the overwhelming evidence in support of legalization and the shifting status quo toward acceptance of new drug policies.
While President Obama seems to be coming around on the issue—he told the New Yorker that pot is not “more dangerous than alcohol,” and he even gave Colorado and Washington the thumbs-up to “go forward” with their experiment in legalization—his administration is still disappointingly conservative on marijuana.
The White House issued a response to the New York Times, trotting out weak, largely debunked justifications for criminalization, focusing on marijuana’s supposed social ills.
The fact that the Obama administration felt compelled to respond shows the clout of the New York Times; the substance (or lack thereof) of its response displays an unwillingness to acknowledge the plain facts, gathered from eight decades of marijuana prohibition.
The American people, however, show no such reservations. A majority of the country now supports full legalization, and three-quarters of the states have reduced federal penalties for marijuana and/or legalized medical cannabis. As the Timeseditorials make plain, legalization is prudent, humane policy, and it is past time for the federal government to act.
Here are six powerful reasons from the New York Times‘ recent editorials to end marijuana prohibition.
1. Prohibition has enormous social costs.
The deleterious effects of prohibition run from wasted resources to ruined lives. Our police devote thousands of hours to arresting, booking and imprisoning marijuana smokers, many of whom are otherwise law-abiding. The most unfortunate of these arrestees have spent over a decade in prison, in some cases for nothing more than possession of cannabis for personal use.
“There were 658,000 arrests for marijuana possession in 2012, according to F.B.I. figures,” the Times notes, “compared with 256,000 for cocaine, heroin and their derivatives.”
These arrests take officers away from more urgent issues and can have serious consequences for the arrested.
“Each year, enforcing laws on possession costs more than $3.6 billion, according to the American Civil Liberties Union,” the Times explains. “It can take a police officer many hours to arrest and book a suspect. That person will often spend a night or more in the local jail, and be in court multiple times to resolve the case.”
And as the Times explains, the ripple effects of an arrest can go well beyond having to appear in court:
“The hundreds of thousands of people who are arrested each year but do not go to jail also suffer; their arrests stay on their records for years, crippling their prospects for jobs, loans, housing, and benefits.”
With persistent unemployment and underemployment, and many parts of the country experiencing a housing crunch, a single marijuana arrest can have dire consequences.
2. The benefits of criminalization are minuscule to non-existent.
Cannabis prohibition is quite costly, but so are other government initiatives. A fair analysis of criminalization must also consider its benefits. The thing is, it’s not clear that there are any.
One of the strangest aspects of the war on drugs is how completely it has failed at reducing drug use, despite costing over $51 billion annually, according to the Drug Policy Alliance.
“After three decades, criminalization has not affected general usage; about 30 million Americans use marijuana every year,” the Times points out.
But what about the “broken windows” theory? Perhaps cannabis users are more likely to be involved in other crimes, and arresting them for possession can nip a life of crime in the bud.
This idea, as the Times makes plain, doesn’t hold up to the data:
“The public-safety payoff for all this effort is meager at best: According to a 2012 Human Rights Watch report that tracked 30,000 New Yorkers with no prior convictions when they were arrested for marijuana possession, 90 percent had no subsequent felony convictions. Only 3.1 percent committed a violent offense.”
If law enforcement agencies wanted to find a good “minor offense” correlate for violent, dangerous crimes, marijuana use doesn’t make a lot of sense. The high itself doesn’t inspire violence, and there is no real case to be made that smoking pot causes one to go on to worse crimes. Even the gateway effect—the theory that cannabis leads to other drugs—was discarded long ago.
3. Prohibition is racist.
In one of its series of editorials, the Times reviews the history of cannabis criminalization and finds it has been racist from the outset in the 1930s. The campaign to make pot illegal was “firmly rooted in prejudices against Mexican immigrants and African Americans, who were associated with marijuana use at the time.” The word “marijuana” was popularized as a way to associate the plant with Mexicans.
Harry Anslinger, criminalization’s biggest champion, is responsible for any number of quotes that sound like satire, but formed the basis of the movement to make cannabis illegal:
“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers,” Anslinger declared. “Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing, result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”
Fast-forward to present day, and the words we use around marijuana have improved, but our actions have not.
“Whites and blacks use marijuana at roughly the same rates; on average, however, blacks are 3.7 times more likely than whites to be arrested for possession, according to a comprehensive 2013 report by the A.C.L.U.,” the Times lays out. “In Iowa, blacks are 8.3 times more likely to be arrested, and in the worst-offending counties in the country, they are up to 30 times more likely to be arrested. The war on drugs aims its firepower overwhelmingly at African-Americans on the street, while white users smoke safely behind closed doors.”
This racial disparity has been present throughout the life of marijuana prohibition. While the obvious solution for a proponent of criminalization would be for police to arrest more white pot smokers—after all, they are criminals too, aren’t they?—no one seems to want to lead that charge. Instead, the drug war, however well meaning its supporters, is in practice, a blatant assault on minorities and their economic mobility.
4. Cannabis has legitimate medical effects.
The narrative of cannabis as a harmful drug has been dominant for so long, that many people had trouble accepting the plant’s demonstrated medicinal effects. Opinions on medical marijuana have shifted dramatically in the last two decades: this year, a slew of mostly conservative states passed laws permitting epilepsy patients to use strains of cannabis high in CBD. These states joined 23 others with broader medical marijuana laws. While the federal government still lists cannabis as a Schedule I drug, meaning it does not acknowledge any legitimate medical use, the states clearly disagree.
The Times lists epilepsy, along with pain from AIDS and nausea from chemotherapy as afflictions that cannabis has been shown to alleviate. One could add glaucoma, Crohn’s disease and muscle spasms related to multiple sclerosis, and a host of other conditions to those marijuana has effectively treated.
Despite the growing number of states with some form of medical law, cannabis is still difficult and risky to obtain for millions of people who could benefit from it. Loosening marijuana laws would help many of these people, and repealing prohibition would help all of them.
5. Legalization won’t lead to increased use.
There is reason even for people who oppose the use of marijuana to support its legalization: legal substances can be controlled in ways illegal ones cannot.
“Science and government have learned a great deal, for example, about how to keep alcohol out of the hands of minors,” the Times explains. “Mandatory underage drinking laws and effective marketing campaigns have reduced underage alcohol use to 24.8 percent in 2011, compared with 33.4 percent in 1991. Cigarette use among high school students is at its lowest point ever, largely thanks to tobacco taxes and growing municipal smoking limits. There is already some early evidence that regulation would also help combat teen marijuana use, which fell after Colorado began broadly regulating medical marijuana in 2010.”
It is the illegal market, with no standards, regulations or price controls, that poses a menace to public health. Our current federal laws, which treat cannabis as equivalent to cocaine and heroin, mostly teach teenagers that the government is completely unrealistic on matters of drug policy. Legalization is the first step in a broader initiative of treating cannabis use as a public health issue.
6. Cannabis is less harmful than alcohol or tobacco.
American history has a good analog for cannabis prohibition: alcohol prohibition. With both, use of the substance did not stop, laws were selectively enforced and violent gangs made staggering profits filling a market law-abiding merchants could no longer touch. In the end, despite alcohol’s costs to bodily health, and the alarming effects it can have on behavior, it was determined, rightly, that criminalizing alcohol did more harm than good.
Marijuana is less addictive than tobacco or alcohol and compares favorably to those drugs on nearly every health metric.
“There is honest debate among scientists about the health effects of marijuana,” the Times writes, “but we believe that the evidence is overwhelming that addiction and dependence are relatively minor problems, especially compared with alcohol and tobacco. Moderate use of marijuana does not appear to pose a risk for otherwise healthy adults. Claims that marijuana is a gateway to more dangerous drugs are as fanciful as the ‘Reefer Madness’ images of murder, rape and suicide.”
In fact, as the Times notes, cannabis is not particularly harmful:
“Casual use by adults poses little or no risk for healthy people. Its effects are mostly euphoric and mild, whereas alcohol turns some drinkers into barroom brawlers, domestic abusers or maniacs behind the wheel.”
The editorial further explains that cannabis has never been directly linked to any serious disease, the way tobacco has with cancer or alcohol with cirrhosis. Even the lungs don’t seem to take much abuse from marijuana:
“The very heaviest users can experience symptoms of bronchitis, such as wheezing and coughing, but moderate smoking poses little risk. A 2012 study found that smoking a joint a day for seven years was not associated with adverse effects on pulmonary function. Experts say that marijuana increases the heart rate and the volume of blood pumped by the heart, but that poses a risk mostly to older users who already have cardiac or other health problems.”
The more one examines the evidence, the less it seems there is any reason at all for cannabis prohibition to remain in place. The United States’ experiment in marijuana prohibition has failed spectacularly. The initial justifications for this experiment don’t hold up to basic moral standards, and the reasons to continue it can’t withstand objective analysis.
For decades, the United States has attempted to clamp down on a plant with a limited capacity to do harm and tremendous ability to do good, and the results have been disastrous. It is as clear now as it has ever been: the time has come to end marijuana prohibition.
Read more about Steven Peters.