Timing the call to repeal marijuana

For Immediate Release — Jul. 28, 2014
Lindsay Taylor, Consumer Marketing Manager

In February of 2011, The Seattle Times published a very influential editorial calling for marijuana to be legalized. Its impact was significant because it gave mainstream support to legalization at the moment when the state of Washington was beginning a serious debate on the issue. In November of 2012, the state’s residents voted by a 56-to-41 margin to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes.

In the practice of editorial writing, timing matters a great deal. The series that The New York Times editorial board began on Sunday, calling for an end to the federal ban on marijuana, is receiving a great deal of attention not because it is a wildly radical move, far ahead of its time. It’s because it comes at a moment when the country is engaged on this topic, and is moving with surprising speed toward a different appraisal of marijuana than existed in the 1970s, when the current ban went into effect.

So far, 37 states plus the District of Columbia have liberalized their marijuana laws in some fashion, either decriminalizing possession, allowing various forms of medical use or legalizing it outright. Two more states — Alaska and Oregon — are preparing to vote on legalization, and others are likely to do the same before long. A year ago, polls show, public sentiment for legalization first became a majority position. There are several bills in Congress to end or soften the federal ban, and in May the House voted to stop prosecuting medical use of marijuana in states that allow it.

“These are not new arguments,” said the Los Angeles Times, citing statistics about the cost to society of widespread marijuana arrests. “But this time they come from the New York Times, not High Times. Support for marijuana legalization has grown so rapidly within the last decade, and especially within the last two years, that some advocates and pollsters have compared it with the sudden collapse of opposition to same-sex marriage as a culture-redefining event.”

Some newspapers seemed to be shocked by our editorial statement. “The expression of so progressive and colourful an opinion is a surprising move from a newspaper so earnest in its coverage that it is nicknamed ‘the Grey Lady,’ ” wrote The Guardian.

But a few web sites, including Gawker and Gothamist, said we should have taken this stand years ago. “The Thought Leaders are late to the party and showed up with half a six-pack and a sticky roach,” Gothamist wrote.

If the current editorial series had been written in the Clinton years, it might have caused a stir, but would have had very little impact on a society that wasn’t ready to hear it.

More to the point, The Times wasn’t ready to write it back then. It was important for the board — which still believes in the old-fashioned virtues of deliberation and examination — to see how the legalization experiment was working in Colorado and Washington, which so far is quite well. The two states did a good job of creating a regulation mechanism, and Colorado, which is further along, has kept legal marijuana out of the hands of minors and is beginning to collect a substantial amount of tax revenue. In addition, the criminal-justice costs of arresting hundreds of thousands of people for marijuana possession have become overwhelming, as documented in one of the best studies on the subject, which was produced just last year by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Even well-timed editorial positions need constant updating, however. Kate Riley, the editorial page editor of The Seattle Times, said it’s vital to keep reminding the federal government of the cost of its ban on states that have chosen to legalize.

“We feel like we’ve been hollering at the administration across 3,000 miles on everything from banking to irrigation water, and even had to chide some sense into our own congressional delegation,” she said in an e-mail. “Yet so far the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation does not want water from its federal dams in Eastern Washington to be used on cannabis.”

We’re glad to have joined The Seattle Times and other newspapers that have come out in favor of legalization or decriminalization. The hollering is only beginning.