The most authoritative paper in the United States has put its weight behind the federal legalization of marijuana, a momentous endorsement in the prolonged fight to end to the criminalization of marijuana that has been in place since 1937.
Debuting what is to be a six-part series, The New York Times editorial board called for an end to the "prohibition" of marijuana, saying the current ban "[inflicts] great harm on society just to prohibit a substance far less dangerous than alcohol." The interactive series is to run from July 26 to August 5, beginning with Saturday's editorial, "High Time: An Editorial Series on Marijuana Legalization." An accompanying blog post by editor Andrew Rosenthal stated the decision to back legalizing marijuana was "long in the making," and "as more and more states liberalized their marijuana laws in open defiance of the federal ban, it became clear to us that there had to be a national approach to the issue."
The board argues that after weighing the pros and cons of legalization, the scale tips in favor of ending the ban. The Times acknowledges that there are concerns about certain forms of marijuana use, including that by minors. Thus, the board advocates for restricting sales of marijuana to those under the age of 21. Addressing other health, social and legal concerns, the board writes that "there are no perfect answers ... but neither are there such answers about tobacco or alcohol." But as the Times argues, the concerns are outweighed by the "vast" social costs of marijuana laws.
From the Times editors:
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. Even worse, the result is racist, falling disproportionately on young black men, ruining their lives and creating new generations of career criminals.
As Politico notes, the "The Times is the biggest U.S. newspaper to endorse the legalization of marijuana." Adding to the significance is the Times' history of being conservative when it comes to legalization. In 2013, an article stressed the dangers of more potent forms of marijuana as well as use of the drug by teenagers. Following Colorado's legalization of marijuana in January 2014, a Times article sounded alarm over having more users of the drug behind the wheel. The article was accompanied by a photo of Tommy Chong and Cheech Marin in the film “Up in Smoke," lighting up in a vehicle. Fears over food laced with marijuana being more accessible to children were sparked by tales of a rise in youth being taken to the emergency room after consuming snacks with the drug. As Washington state moved to join Colorado in legalizing recreational marijuana, the Times wrote on the many hurdles that medical marijuana providers would encounter. In June, the Times hosted an op-ed column where the writer said "Marijuana is more dangerous than many of us once thought," pointing to a link between marijuana use and schizophrenia. And of course, there was New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd's "bad trip," where she detailed being "curled up in a hallucinatory state for the next eight hours," after trying a marijuana candy bar while on assignment.
Given the Times influence, it could be that the endorsement of federal legalization of marijuana could spur politicians, organizations and publications to do in kind. The Times' endorsement is strengthened by the paper's history on issues concerning marijuana and strong language, likening the ban on marijuana to the prohibition of alcohol. Set beside an interactive American flag where stars transform to marijuana leaves as readers scroll, the editorial opens:
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. 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.
The Times editors close with certainty, "It is long past time to repeal this version of Prohibition."
President Barack Obama said in 2012 that prosecuting pot users in states that have legalized it would not be a top priority for his administration, telling ABC News' Barbara Walters, "We've got bigger fish to fry." The New York Times editorial board endorsement of legalizing marijuana counts as another key voice sounding for a change in how the U.S. approaches marijuana.
CORRECTION: 10:30 p.m. ET -- This article previously stated that marijuana had been banned in the United States for 40 years. As Frontline notes, the Marijuana Tax Act effectively criminalized marijuana in the U.S. in 1937.