In a landmark 2014 editorial, the nation's leading newspaper, the New York Times called for marijuana to be legalized by the federal government. Read the editorial below:
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 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. 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. 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.
The social costs of the marijuana laws are vast. There were 658,000 arrests for marijuana possession in 2012, according to FBI 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.
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, 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.
There are legitimate concerns about marijuana on the development of adolescent brains. For that reason, we advocate the prohibition of sales to people under 21.
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.
Update: In a followup editorial, posted July 29, 2014 Brent Staples wrote, "The federal government has taken a small step back from irrational enforcement. But it clings to a policy that has its origins in racism and xenophobia and whose principal effect has been to ruin the lives of generations of people."
Also, on ABC News' This Week, the Times' editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal defended their decision and told Jonathan Karl: "I smoked pot in my life. I went to college in Colorado in the 1970s. You figiure it out."
2015 Update: A year later, the Times writes in an editorial: "Congress and Obama Are Too Timid on Marijuana Reform." Read it below:
Even as support for ending marijuana prohibition is building around the country, Congress and the Obama administration remain far too timid about the need for change.
Last year, residents in Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia voted to join Colorado and Washington State in making recreational use of marijuana legal. Later this year, residents of Ohio are expected to vote on a ballot measure that would legalize it. Nevadans will vote on a legalization proposal next year. And Californians could vote on several similar measures next year.
Instead of standing by as change sweeps the country, federal lawmakers should be more actively debating and changing the nation’s absurd marijuana policies, policies that have ruined millions of lives and wasted billions of dollars. Their inaction is putting businesses and individuals in states that have legalized medical and recreational marijuana in dubious legal territory — doing something that is legal in their state but is considered a federal crime.
Many growers, retailers and dispensaries also have to operate using only cash because many banks will not serve them, citing the federal prohibition. Recently, the Federal Reserve denied a master account to a credit union in Colorado seeking to provide financial services to marijuana businesses.
Lawmakers who hope their colleagues in Congress will act face an uphill struggle. For example, a bill introduced in the Senate by Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrats of New Jersey and New York, respectively, and Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, would allow states to legalize marijuana for medical use. It would also allow banks and credit unions to provide financial services to cannabis-based businesses in states that have legalized the drug. The bill has 16 sponsors, including two Republicans, but the Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa, has not scheduled it for a hearing or a vote. An identical bill in the House with 17 sponsors, eight of them Republican, is also languishing in committee.
Congress has taken a few positive steps, like approving a provision that would prevent the Justice Department from using federal funds to keep states from carrying out their own medical marijuana laws. And some senior Republicans, including Mr. Grassley and Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, have expressed support for the medical use of a compound known as cannabidiol, which is found in the cannabis plant but is not psychoactive. The Obama administration recently made it easier for scientists to study marijuana by removing a requirement that studies not funded by the federal government go through an additional review process, beyond what is required for researchers working with other drugs.
But both Congress and the White House should be doing more. Specifically, marijuana should be removed from the Controlled Substances Act, where it is classified as a Schedule I drug like heroin and LSD, and considered to have no medical value. Removing marijuana from the act would not make it legal everywhere, but it would make it easier for states to decide how they want to regulate it.
Even as Washington demurs, efforts to legalize marijuana continue in the states. In California, several activist groups are trying to get legalization measures on the 2016 ballot. The state was the first in the country to legalize medical marijuana, in 1996, and a majority of residents favor legalizing recreational marijuana, according to a recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California.
State legalization efforts are not uniformly well thought out, which is another reason for Congress and the president to act. For example, activists in Ohio are trying to legalize marijuana with a constitutional amendmentthat would allow commercial cultivation of the plant on just 10 dedicated sites listed in the measure. This would grant a lucrative monopoly to a few businesses. Ohio officials will soon decide whether organizers have collected enough signatures to put the proposal on the ballot.
Direct democracy can sometimes produce good results. But it would be far better for Congress and the president to repeal failed laws and enact sensible drug policies.