THE BLOG
08/07/2014 03:45 pm ET | Updated Oct 07, 2014

What the Times Did on Marijuana Was Big!

ASSOCIATED PRESS

I'm a New York Times junkie. I got hooked in my early teens and have rarely gone a day without a fix. It is, apart from email, the first and principal thing I look at on my mobile. All of which is to say, I love the Times, and I hate it too; I understand the Times and sometimes I just don't get it.

I'll admit I was surprised and impressed when it came out last week in support of legalizing marijuana. It didn't tip toe nor qualify its endorsement with killer caveats. It splattered it instead across the front page of its Sunday Review section- the first time, said editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal, that the Times had ever done that. And it backed it up with more than half a dozen, highly substantive, additional essays and opinion pieces as well as media interviews, web chats and the like during the week that followed. When attacks followed, Times writers dismissed them with knowing confidence. "We decided we wanted to shout something out, to really crank up the volume," Rosenthal said, and so they did, like never before.

It was all, sort of, un-Times-like, which of course made it all the more significant. What's the big deal, some skeptics rightly asked, about a bunch of New York liberal editorialists at last endorsing a policy reform that a majority of Americans already support, and after, not before, Colorado, Washington and Uruguay had already made their move. But the fact is: it is a big deal, because of who they are, how they did it, and the fact that they said it now, not later.

The Times' editorial board may lean liberal but on the marijuana issue they've typically been quite cautious -- apart from blasting the NYPD for the blatant racial disproportionality of its marijuana arrests. Be a bit ahead of the curve, but not by too much, appears to be their mantra -- on this issue as on so many others.

Line up Gallup's polling on marijuana legalization with its polling on marriage equality and you'll see that they track one another quite closely, with support for marijuana legalization growing even more rapidly, and now slightly higher, than for marriage equality. Yet not one sitting governor or U.S. senator has clearly endorsed the former -- nor has any legalization bill yet been approved by any state legislative body (with the exception of New Hampshire's House of Representatives, which then reversed itself). A couple dozen members of Congress now support legalizing marijuana but just three years ago Ron Paul and Barney Frank were hard pressed to find any colleagues willing to join them openly.

That's going to change now, in good part because the Times' coming out provides the cover that elected officials typically crave. The Establishment, in effect, has given its blessing.

The other group sure to be influenced by the Times' editorials are older people. Pollsconsistently show that senior citizens are the least likely to favor legalizing marijuana. They probably also make up a disproportionate share of those who read the Sunday New York Times print edition -- which happens to be the largest circulation weekend paper in the country. As impressive as the Times' series was online, it was even more impressive in print, consuming not just the front page of last week's Sunday Review but the entire editorial page both last Sunday and this Sunday. I'd bet that resistance to legalizing marijuana among those who have been reading the Times for forty-plus years -- which no doubt includes many Americans of great influence -- just dropped in important ways.

I'd love to have been a fly on the wall last week at the editorial board meetings of other major newspapers, especially the Wall Street Journal. After spewing the most craven drug war rhetoric during the late 1980s and 1990s, the Journal's editorial page quieted in an apparent truce between those whose contempt for government overreach extended to the drug war and those for whom the political and culture war advantages of the drug war trumped anti-government sentiments. No editorial board wants to admit, perhaps even to itself, that it's influenced by what some other editorial board, even the New York Times', just said. But there's no doubt that the national "newspaper of record" -- the "Gray Lady" as it's aptly called -- has forced the issue for others, not just by making the choice it did but also by backing it up with persuasive evidence and reasoning.

"Claims that marijuana is a gateway to more dangerous drugs are as fanciful as the 'Reefer Madness' images of murder, rape and suicide." Few lines in the editorial were as important as that one, especially right now, with Governors Cuomo and Christie both latching on to the gateway myth to justify their opposition to major marijuana law reforms. The Times boldly averred what The Institute of Medicine and the extensive research had already concluded: that the gateway theory is essentially a myth. Indeed, all indications are that it's not the drug, or the nature of the high, that result in some marijuana consumers eventually trying other illicit drugs but rather its illegality, which results in consumers buying marijuana from people who also sell other illegal drugs. In the Netherlands, where retail sale of cannabis has been quasi-legal for decades, the proportion of marijuana consumers who go on to use other illegal drugs has longbeen lower than in the United States and other countries. If Governors Cuomo and Christie are serious about their gateway concerns, they should support, not oppose, legalizing marijuana.

The most disappointing, and revealing, of responses to the Times issued from the White House -- disappointing because its recitation of objections to legalization was so blatantly unbalanced and poorly reasoned, and revealing in making clear that no one in The White House seems to be coordinating policy or messaging on the issue. "Careful readers will immediately see the White House statement for what it is," said Times editorial writer Philip Boffey: "A pro forma response to a perceived public relations crisis, not a full-fledged review of all the scientific evidence, pro and con." Perhaps, he suggested, it's because "the White House is actually required by law to oppose all efforts to legalize a banned drug." Both his critique of the White House's statement, as well as graphics editor Christopher Ingraham's in The Washington Post, make clear that the federal government's anti-marijuana propaganda will no longer get the pass it did for so many years. By contrast, President Obama's comments earlier this year about marijuana and legalization, in his New Yorker interview with David Remnick, were far more nuanced. Hopefully his most senior advisors will perceive the White House statement for the embarrassment it was, and act accordingly.

The essence of what the Times said about marijuana and its prohibition has of course been true for many decades. As the Times' editors wrote, in concluding their kickoff editorial, "it is long past time to repeal this version of Prohibition." The shame is that it's taken so very long for those with influence and power to get it -- that thinking people either didn't think it, or didn't say it if they did.

Does the New York Times' editorial rank with famed newscaster Walter Cronkite's TV editorial in February 1968, in which he declared that the Vietnam War could not be won, and that peace negotiations were essential? Of course not. But in a day and age when media is so diversified as to negate the possibility of a contemporary Walter Cronkite, The Times' editors have pulled off a feat of historic significance. Two states down, forty-eight to go. One country down, and 195 to go. Ultimate victory is far from assured. But its chances just took a good leap forward, courtesy of the New York Times.

Ethan Nadelmann is the founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.