The New York Times Screws up on Marijuana

Over the weekend, the New York Times called for an end to marijuana prohibition. The link to the editorial is here. I’m going to reprint the entire piece here and address it line by line. I believe that legalization has too many problems, but I support decriminalization. My comments are in red.


It took 13 years for the United States to come to its senses and end Prohibition, 13 years in which people kept drinking, otherwise law-abiding citizens became criminals and crime syndicates arose and flourished. The lawlessness is correct, but what people fail to discuss is that there was less drinking during prohibition, fewer accidents caused by drinking, and fewer cases of cirrhosis of the liver.  It has been more than 40 years since Congress passed the current ban on marijuana, inflicting great harm on society just to prohibit a substance far less dangerous than alcohol. I agree that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol.

The federal government should repeal the ban on marijuana.

We reached that conclusion after a great deal of discussion among the members of The Times’s Editorial Board, inspired by a rapidly growing movement among the states to reform marijuana laws.

There are no perfect answers to people’s legitimate concerns about marijuana use. Agreed. There needs to be more medical research on marijuana, which requires the Federal Government to move it from a schedule I to schedule II drug. But neither are there such answers about tobacco or alcohol, and we believe that on every level — health effects, the impact on society and law-and-order issues — the balance falls squarely on the side of national legalization. Tobacco and alcohol policy can be instructive here. Both substances are taxed, and yet the money they raise pales in comparison to the medical, criminal justice and social costs that they incur.  That will put decisions on whether to allow recreational or medicinal production and use where it belongs — at the state level.

We considered whether it would be best for Washington to hold back while the states continued experimenting with legalizing medicinal uses of marijuana, reducing penalties, or even simply legalizing all use. Nearly three-quarters of the states have done one of these.

But that would leave their citizens vulnerable to the whims of whoever happens to be in the White House and chooses to enforce or not enforce the federal law. Agreed.

The social costs of the marijuana laws are vast. Agreed. There were 658,000 arrests for marijuana possession in 2012, according to F.B.I. figures, compared with 256,000 for cocaine, heroin and their derivatives. The ironic point here is that if marijuana is legalized, the number of arrests will actually go up (underage use, intoxicated driving). Even worse, the result is racist, falling disproportionately on young black men, ruining their lives and creating new generations of career criminals. Agreed. But…when someone who is under 21 gets arrested for possessing marijuana, who do you think will get off? Who will be charged? (rich white people will get off and poor black people will be charged…so legalizing marijuana won’t change this)

There is honest debate among scientists about the health effects of marijuana, but we believe that the evidence is overwhelming that addiction and dependence are relatively minor problems (this is an irresponsible claim), especially compared with alcohol and tobacco. Moderate use of marijuana does not appear to pose a risk for otherwise healthy adults. Agreed. Claims that marijuana is a gateway to more dangerous drugs are as fanciful as the “Reefer Madness” images of murder, rape and suicide. Agreed.

There are legitimate concerns about marijuana on the development of adolescent brains. Agreed. For that reason, we advocate the prohibition of sales to people under 21. Fine, but please remember my above point regarding arresting underage users.

Creating systems for regulating manufacture, sale and marketing will be complex. But those problems are solvable, and would have long been dealt with had we as a nation not clung to the decision to make marijuana production and use a federal crime.

In coming days, we will publish articles by members of the Editorial Board and supplementary material that will examine these questions. We invite readers to offer their ideas, and we will report back on their responses, pro and con.

We recognize that this Congress is as unlikely to take action on marijuana as it has been on other big issues. But it is long past time to repeal this version of Prohibition.