The New York Times editorial board made history yesterday, as the first major national paper to call for an end to marijuana prohibition. And how they did it is half the story – with rare flash and panache, as well as the intellectual and moral substance to back it up.
The Times’ editorial has the feel of legendary CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite coming out against the Vietnam war. They dropped a bomb on our country’s disastrous war on marijuana with unprecedented force.
Some people think of the Times’ editorial page as a liberal mouthpiece – but when it comes to marijuana prohibition and the drug war, they've been extremely cautious and conservative. In previous decades, the Times did as much as any other media outlet to legitimize drug war hysteria and its disastrous policies.
For them to pull no punches in rejecting the prohibitionist policies that their predecessors embraced speaks to the broader inter-generational transformation underway in America – not just with the issue of ending marijuana prohibition, but also LGBT rights and other issues as well. It gives us hope that America can evolve, both morally and intellectually, in a more enlightened direction.
Just look at the content. The paper of record forcefully called the federal government to end the ban on marijuana, linking marijuana prohibition to the failed alcohol prohibition policy of the 1930’s, while noting that marijuana is a less dangerous substance than alcohol. They also cited our country’s massive, racially disproportionate numbers of marijuana arrests as further provocation for their position.
But the content is only part of the story – the paper also put passion and juice behind it. The cover of the Sunday Review was splashed with an enormous image of an American flag, with marijuana leaves replacing the stars. I have never seen a Times editorial take up three-quarters of the cover of the Sunday Review.
These editorials had the feel of a manifesto and a campaign for the Times, and the paper announced that they were just the start. There will be a six-part series on marijuana legalization in which editorial staff examine a range of related issues such as criminal justice, public health, regulatory models, and so forth. As the “paper of record,” the Times’ advocacy on this issue has already created a tidal wave of media attention, with TV coverage on the Sunday morning shows and a worldwide echo of follow-up stories.
It’s worth noting that the Times’ position is not actually that cutting-edge – they are simply catching up with the majority of Americans who now support marijuana legalization.
And think about what this means for electoral politics. Even though marijuana reform has moved from the fringes to the mainstream of American politics in recent years, support has lagged among elected officials and other major institutions.
The Times has now provided elected officials with more evidence that ending marijuana prohibition and the drug war is not just the right thing to do – it’s also smart politics. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in this year’s election, and especially in 2016 – when Presidential candidates and other key figures will be obliged to take a position on this issue.
Marijuana arrests have been the key engine driving our country’s devastating war on drugs. Tens of millions of lives have been damaged because of a marijuana possession arrest. The most powerful news outlet in the world coming on board, with the passion they did, should speed up an exit strategy from this long-lost war.
Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org)