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What the New York Times Neglected to Say about Marijuana Legalization

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The editorial board of the New York Times recently called for the legalization of marijuana in a seven-part series titled “High Time: An Editorial Series on Marijuana Legalization.” Although the New York Times raised many good points in favor of marijuana legalization, the newspaper’s editors neglected to say something they should have about the subject.

In its introduction, “Repeal Prohibition, Again,” the New York Times comes right out and says that “the federal government should repeal the ban on marijuana.” The editorial board “reached that conclusion after a great deal of discussion” and was “inspired by a rapidly growing movement among the states to reform marijuana laws.” There is one caveat, though. Since “there are legitimate concerns about marijuana on the development of adolescent brains,” the New York Times advocates “the prohibition of sales to people under 21” even though it doesn’t advocate the prohibition of alcohol sales to those who are between 18 and 21.

The six additional parts of the “High Time” series are:

1. Let States Decide on Marijuana

2. The Injustice of Marijuana Arrests

3. The Federal Marijuana Ban Is Rooted in Myth and Xenophobia

4. What Science Says about Marijuana

5. The Great Colorado Weed Experiment

6. Rules for the Marijuana Market

Just the introductory salvo by the New York Times was too much for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). In a response posted on its website (a response that was much longer than the original New York Times editorial), the ONDCP concluded,

Any discussion on the issue should be guided by science and evidence, not ideology and wishful thinking. The Obama Administration continues to oppose legalization of marijuana and other illegal drugs because it flies in the face of a public health approach to reducing drug use and its consequences.

The ONDCP charged the New York Times with ignoring “the science” and failing to mention “a cascade of public health problems associated with the increased availability of marijuana.” Although the complete “High Time” series goes on to address those concerns, it neglects to say the most important thing that could be said regarding marijuana legalization.

Nevertheless, the “High Time” series does say many important things regarding marijuana legalization that are worth mentioning.

In “Let States Decide on Marijuana,” the New York Times says that the decision of the various states “to permit marijuana use and under what conditions” is “a choice that states should be allowed to make based on their culture and their values” just as the states “did with alcohol after the end of Prohibition in 1933.” It is absurd for the federal government to list marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance (“no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States”) “alongside some of the most dangerous and mind-altering drugs on earth, ranked as high as heroin, LSD and bufotenine, a highly toxic and hallucinogenic toad venom that can cause cardiac arrest” when “cocaine and methamphetamine are a notch down on the government’s rankings, listed in Schedule II.”

In “The Injustice of Marijuana Arrests,” the New York Times states that the toll of the criminalization of marijuana can be measured in “dollars — billions of which are thrown away each year in the aggressive enforcement of pointless laws,” in “years — whether wasted behind bars or stolen from a child who grows up fatherless,” and in “lives — those damaged if not destroyed by the shockingly harsh consequences that can follow even the most minor offenses.” In 2011, “there were more arrests for marijuana possession than for all violent crimes put together.” The criminalization of marijuana “has not affected general usage.” And although on average “whites and blacks use marijuana at roughly the same rates,” blacks are “3.7 times more likely than whites to be arrested for possession.”

In “The Federal Marijuana Ban Is Rooted in Myth and Xenophobia,” the New York Times declares that “the federal law that makes possession of marijuana a crime has its origins in legislation that was passed in an atmosphere of hysteria during the 1930s and that was firmly rooted in prejudices against Mexican immigrants and African-Americans, who were associated with marijuana use at the time.” The popularity of marijuana “among minorities and other groups practically ensured that it would be classified as a ‘narcotic,’ attributed with addictive qualities it did not have, and set alongside far more dangerous drugs like heroin and morphine.” The U.S. government made “fantastical assertions” in 1930s about marijuana’s causing “insanity” and pushing people “toward horrendous acts of criminality.”

In “What Science Says About Marijuana,” the New York Times points out the “vast gap between antiquated federal law enforcement policies and the clear consensus of science that marijuana is far less harmful to human health than most other banned drugs and is less dangerous than the highly addictive but perfectly legal substances known as alcohol and tobacco.” It is pointed out that “marijuana cannot lead to a fatal overdose,” “there is little evidence that it causes cancer,” “its addictive properties, while present, are low,” “the myth that it leads users to more powerful drugs has long since been disproved,” “casual use by adults poses little or no risk for healthy people,” “no clear causal connection between marijuana and a deadly disease has been made,” and marijuana “does not appear to be a gateway drug to the extent that it is the cause or even that it is the most significant predictor of serious drug abuse.”

In “The Great Colorado Weed Experiment,” the New York Times reports that in Colorado, which recently defied the federal government by legalizing recreational marijuana, the state has taken in millions in revenue “from taxes, licenses, and fees,” “the marijuana industry has receded into normality,” “the criminal justice system is righting itself,” and the “ominously predicted harms from legalization — like blight, violence, soaring addiction rates and other ills — remain imaginary worries.”

In “Rules for the Marijuana Market,” the New York Times deviates from the format of the previous five parts of its “High Time” series and offers some policy recommendations:

Regulators will have to design policies that allow licensed businesses to undercut the illegal market but keep prices high enough so dependence on the drug does not increase a lot.

Lawmakers should not repeat the mistakes they made on alcohol in recent years, taxing it too lightly and allowing the industry to become highly concentrated.

States with an existing medical marijuana market will also have to make sure that users are not abusing it to evade taxes.

States that choose to legalize it must impose limits on the promotional activities of marijuana businesses.

States must require proper labeling and packaging of products that contain mind-altering substances.

To discourage the use of marijuana with alcohol, states can require that they be sold in different places and ban the use of cannabis at bars and restaurants.

States should keep the production and retail sales of marijuana separate to ensure that the industry does not evolve into a group of politically and financially powerful vertically integrated businesses.

Aside from its policy recommendations, the “High Time” series presents a very convincing practical and utilitarian case for the legalization of marijuana. However, not only does the New York Times neglect to say something very important about this subject, it neglects to say the most important thing that could be said regarding marijuana legalization.

The most important thing is that it should be legal in America for adults to use marijuana for freedom’s sake. Nowhere in any of the seven parts of “High Time” does the New York Times suggest or imply that Americans should be free to buy, sell, or use marijuana for the same reason that they are free to buy, sell, or use chocolate, peanuts, or bananas. Nowhere does the New York Times say that marijuana should be legal because Americans should have the right to engage in any peaceful activity. Nowhere does the New York Times say that marijuana should be legal because Americans should have the right to smoke, sniff, swallow, inject, or otherwise ingest any substance they choose.

It really doesn’t matter if marijuana shouldn’t be classified as a Schedule I controlled substance. It really doesn’t matter if marijuana has a medical use. It really doesn’t matter if marijuana is safer than tobacco and alcohol. It really doesn’t matter if marijuana is not a gateway drug. It really doesn’t matter if marijuana has low addictive properties. It really doesn’t matter if marijuana cannot lead to a fatal overdose. It really doesn’t matter if marijuana poses little or no risk for healthy people. It really doesn’t matter if marijuana prohibition wastes money and destroys lives. It really doesn’t matter if marijuana arrests are racially disparate. It really doesn’t matter if marijuana laws have their roots in racism and xenophobia. It really doesn’t matter if marijuana criminalization has not affected the usage of marijuana.

But not only is the case for marijuana legalization irrespective of any of the reasons given by the New York Times, it also doesn’t matter if every bad thing that prohibitionists say about marijuana is true. In a free society, the natural and moral right of adults to freely buy, sell, grow, or use marijuana — for any purpose — would not be hindered.

The New York Times “High Time” series on marijuana legalization is an informative and much-needed exposé that is highly recommended. However, it neglects to present the most powerful and important case against prohibition: freedom.

Legalize freedom; legalize marijuana.