The New York Times Endorses Marijuana Legalization

The Grey Lady sees the light on a major part of the War On Drugs.

Marijuana Plant

In an editorial entitled “Repeal Prohibition, Again,” The New York Times Editorial Board has added its voice to those calling for the legalization of marijuana:

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.

The editorial goes on to note that the board had considered adopting the more conservative position of encouraging the Federal Government to allow states to decide how to deal with the issue on their own, as Washington and Colorado did in 2012 and as Oregon and Alaska as set to do in referendums that will appear on the ballot in November, but that is a less than ideal situation. As the Times points out, and as we have seen in the aftermath of  legalization in Washington and Colorado, and more extensively in those states where marijuana has been either legalized for medicinal use or decriminalized to the point where a citation for use or possession of small amounts is the equivalent of a traffic citation, such a world simply doesn’t work. Most of all, this is because it places American citizens in a sort of legal limbo where they face the possibility of being targeted by the Federal Government for doing something that is perfectly legal, or the equivalent of going 65 in a 55 mph zone, in their state. As the Times points out, people in those states are at the whim of whomever happens to be in the White House at a given time since the current policy of not aggressively going after people who may be technically in violation of Federal law in these states is entirely at the whim of whomever happens to be in charge in the White House and at the Justice Department at a given point in time. That’s obviously not a viable long-term solution.

The editorial goes on to talk about the costs of marijuana prohibition, as compared to the alleged costs of legalization:

The social costs of the marijuana laws are vast. 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.

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.

The costs of prohibition go far beyond those that the Times cites, of course. The War On Drugs, of which the efforts to combat the importation, cultivation, and sale of marijuana plays a huge role, has had a transformative effect on our criminal justice system and on law enforcement, largely for the worse. The drug war led to court decisions that have chipped away at the protections of the Fourth and Fifth Amendment in the name of “public safety.” It has overwhelmed our criminal justice system to the point where drug cases take up a disproportionate amount of the dockets of courts across the country, taxing the resources of judges, prosecutors, and public defenders, and leading to situations where cases are often disposed of in a summary fashion because that’s what “convenient.” As the Times notes, it has turned people, mostly young African-American men, into criminals. It has ruined entire neighborhoods by empowering organized crime in pretty much the same manner that Prohibition empowered the Mafia. South of our border, it has turned entire regions of nations such as Mexico and Colombia into havens for powerful drug lords and, in Mexico most especially, led to a horrifying level of violence and corruption. To no small degree, the drug was also plays a role in the problems that have led to the Central American refugee crisis on our Southern border.  Obviously, not all of this can be pinned on the laws against marijuana since cocaine and heroin also play a role in this dynamic, but marijuana continues to be the biggest illegal drug on the market according to most measures. Statistics from the Drug Enforcement Administration, for example, show that seizures of marijuana are larger than the seizure of all other illegal drugs combined; while this many not be the best measure of what’s actually being imported, it is a fairly good indication of what’s coming into the country.

As for the costs of marijuana use, and accepting for the sake of argument that use of the substance would increase in some measurable respect if it were legalized, it seems clear that these costs do not justify the continuation of the status quo. Alcohol use and abuse are potentially far more dangerous than marijuana use, for example, and yet we not only don’t make it illegal, but in many parts of the country its distribution and sale is managed by agents of the state government. Smoking tobacco also has serious long-term health implications, and yet we’ve learned over the past several decades that the best way to combat these problems is not by making the product illegal, but through a combination of education and social sanction. The fact that marijuana use may be bad for you, then, isn’t a reason to make it illegal or to continue the with the current absurd War on Drugs. Finally, it strikes me that the potential for harms such as those the editorial mentions is largely irrelevant. Individuals ought to be free to decide what to ingest into their own bodies whether it is harmful to them or not. The government shouldn’t be in the business of saving people from the consequences of their own bad decisions, that’s what being a free adult is about.

On a final note, the Times notes that it is unlikely that Congress would act to legalize marijuana any time soon. However, this is an issue that, at least in theory, would not require Congressional action. Currently, the Food & Drug Administration classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug along with heroin and LSD. Somewhat ironically, cocaine, methamphetamine, and prescription painkillers, which are arguably more dangerous than marijuana, are classified as Schedule 2 drugs. The agency could, essentially on its own, reschedule marijuana as a lower class drug and, while this may not lead to full legalization, it would take most of the law enforcement pressure off of medical marijuana, as well as providing momentum for the political argument for legalization. The FDA is currently reviewing the classification of marijuana, and while there is skepticism over whether anything will come of this current process, the fact that it is being done is progress in an of itself.

With everything else going on in the world, some may wonder why the Times is focusing on an issue like this right now, but it seems to me that this is as good a time as any. On both the medical marijuana and legalization fronts, the political momentum seems to be moving in a very clear direction. Polling now shows solid and growing majority support in support of the idea of legalization among the American public. More importantly, though, for the thousands of people who get caught up in the legal system on an annual basis because of these laws, there really isn’t any better time than the present to address this issue. So, welcome to the club New York Times, some of us have been calling for this for some time now but it’s always nice to have allies.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Law and the Courts, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    I read recently that since legalization in Colorado, crime is down and tax revenues are up. Even with all the usual correlation/causation warnings, the irony is delicious.

    The fact that marijuana use may be bad for you, then, isn’t a reason to make it illegal or to continue the with the current absurd War on Drugs.

    While I totally agree with you on this, it is not to say that there won’t be costs to society associated with the legalization or that we should not consider what those costs might be. After all, whether one smokes or drinks or not, alcohol and tobacco both have considerable costs to each of us as members of society. I just happen to think the costs of legalization will be far lower than the present state of affairs.

  2. Mu says:

    Now finally we found something the President can do unilaterally and without anybody getting upset about an imperial presidency. Of course, whether he should do it is still a debate, but, to go with Douglas Adams, it seems to be mostly harmless.

  3. Ron Beasley says:

    I agree that the legislature will not do anything in the foreseeable future – big pharma and the prison industrial complex will fight it. The did both fight when Oregon changed possession from a felony to a violation and when Oregon passed it’s medical marijuana law.
    If you go the the right Doctor here in Oregon you can get medical marijuana for just about anything and marijuana by law is the lowest priority for law enforcement by law.
    Regardless of what idiots like Steve King say most of the Marijuana consumed in the US is grown in the US – hell you can grow it nearly everywhere. There are areas of BLM land in Eastern Oregon that people are advised not to visit because members of the drug cartels, who are heavily armed, are growing marijuana there and the BLM budget has been slashed to the point they can no longer do anything about it.

  4. James in Silverdale, WA says:

    “The fact that marijuana use may be bad for you…”

    May be? How does a “maybe” get classified as a fact? Weed is not booze. It’s not even aspirin. It does not cause cancer. It does stimulate appetite. Many claim it stimulates the mind while calming it. And taking it isn’t really anyone else’s business as to the How’s and Why’s. Two states have gotten this, Oregon will likely be a third this Fall.

    It’s over. The lies over weed have been exposed and there won’t be any going back now.

  5. Tillman says:

    The agency could, essentially on its own, reschedule marijuana as a lower class drug and, while this may not lead to full legalization, it would take most of the law enforcement pressure off of medical marijuana, as well as providing momentum for the political argument for legalization.

    Thus adding further to the idea that Obama acts unilaterally and is trampling on the Constitution. I can’t believe anyone would look at the politics on this and think this is a good idea. Resistance to legalizing weed goes up statistically as one ages, and I believe (but could be wrong) most Republicans are 55 and older.

  6. Tillman says:

    @James in Silverdale, WA:

    It does not cause cancer.

    Oh, it can totally cause cancer. Tobacco smoke has something like 300 carcinogens in it. Weed smoke has like 150. It also has cannabidiol, which has a clinically-proven effect to inhibit cancer cell growth, and there’s some studies (it requires further study) that suggest the cancer-fighting properties of other cannabinoids essentially balance out the carcinogens in the smoke. Further, weed vapor (which is what we’d all do in a sane world) has like 3 carcinogens max, and might on the whole be good for you.

    We should also be aware that the probability of cancer development goes up exponentially if you smoke tobacco and weed, worse than if you did tobacco alone. There’s plenty of necessity for warning labels and good education on the topic. Poor Maureen Dowd nearly peeled her skin off doing too much of the stuff. (Which also reminds me that edible weed has a different range of effects entirely, but probably nothing cancerous whatsoever there.)

  7. JKB says:

    Funny how they don’t mention certain words that are central to the use:

    Smoke, smoking, second-hand smoke, lung, lungs, children, minors.

    And while explaining why Prohibition is bad and unworkable, they advocate for prohibition of use by those under 21. An unexplored consequence of that would be to move the full impact of the justice system use of extortion to leverage against illegal producers onto the children, adolescents and what? post-adolescent. Do we have a word for non-adults who can vote, enter contracts, etc. but are subject to prohibitions for alcohol and possibly weed?

  8. JKB says:


    Yeah, vaping or ingestion would be the way to go. But even vaping has problems with secondhand vaping for weed. There are many jobs where testing positive is a bad thing, therefore someone introducing you to weed second-hand would have to be controlled.

    And we must not miss how smoking weed could desensitize kids to smoking tobacco like they say vaping does.

  9. Jeremy says:

    1) Actually shocked it has taken the NYT so damn long to come around on this

    2) I may be radical, but I think we should jettison age limits on alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana consumption. I honestly don’t see any benefits to these rules; it might actually be better if a 15 year old can have a beer with dinner with his family, and learn how to properly consume such things.

    3) On top of this, we should also decriminalize harder drugs like the Portugal method – and god willing, maybe legalize LSD and opium. Well, legalization of those will probably never happen, but the decriminalization really should. This is in no way a “crime.” It is a health issue, and you may be able to convince me it’s a “public” health issue, but that’s a hard sell. But in no way should people go to jail for imbibing substances.

  10. Ron Beasley says:

    @Jeremy: I have to disagree with you on (2. It has been shown that alcohol consumption by those under 21 is really bad on liver and pancreas development and that those who start drinking below 21 are much more likely to become alcoholics. As for marijuana it has also been shown that smoking it at an early age does have a negative impact on brain development.

  11. anjin-san says:

    it might actually be better if a 15 year old can have a beer with dinner with his family, and learn how to properly consume such things.

    That assumes that the adults in question are using alcohol responsibly, which is often not the case.

  12. anjin-san says:

    This is not a complicated issue. Pot is not addictive. The harm it does, to individuals an society, is less than that of tobacco, alcohol, and prescription drugs – by orders of magnitude.

    Pot was successfully used to continue the disastrously failed policy of prohibition. It’s function in our current “war on drugs” mode is to provide bodies to feed the criminal justice/prison industry, and keep the money flowing.

    Legalize it for anyone over 21. Tax it. Use the money to build/repair schools, hospitals, and roads. The result will be a freer, more prosperous society.

  13. michael reynolds says:

    The study on pot and brain development is tiny and showed very small changes in IQ. Proof my be produced some day but it has not been proven yet. I would infinitely rather have my kids smoke weed than drink.

  14. Ron Beasley says:

    @anjin-san: I agree, I doubt than many more will smoke marijuana if it’s legalized – we still have the drug test for employment issue – marijuana shows up in a drug test days after you got stoned while alcohol is gone after 12 hours. As for children – if you want to score some pot the best place to go is the local high school. If anything controlled legalization should make it easier to keep it out of the hands of the underaged.

  15. Ron Beasley says:

    @michael reynolds: My nephew started drinking in his early teens. When he was in his early 20s he was an alcoholic and a severe case on pancreatise that almost killed him.

  16. anjin-san says:

    @ Ron

    I was stoned pretty much all the time between ages 15 & 19. We could always get pot in high school.

    When I was 19, I got a job that was fairly demanding, and I realized I could not do it and be a stoner, so I quit. It’s noteworthy because I have an addictive personality, and was strung out on booze, cocaine, & prescription drugs until I got into recovery when I was 29.

    Giving up pot was easy, even for this addict. I just decided I wanted to stop, and stopped.

  17. Ron Beasley says:

    @anjin-san: I too had no problem stopping pot but alcohol has been a life long issue.

  18. steve q says:

    I have a drinking problem. My friend erica smokes a joint every night.

    Drinking kicks the shit outta me, while she easily holds down 2 jobs.

  19. michael reynolds says:

    There are genuine issues with weed – I do believe it can have an effect on motivation, and god knows it does not help you when you’re trying to stay away from the carrot cake. But I quit without any trouble, didn’t get high for a long time, and recently started again because, quite frankly, I kind of have the motivation thing pretty well crushed at this point. (150 plus books, 4 more under contract.) But it’s something to bear in mind.

    I also don’t think anyone should drive high. It has a pretty severe effect on your perception of time, and timing is just a wee bit important when driving.

    I don’t believe the IQ effect, I suspect it’s statistical noise. And none of the studies of course consider the positives. You know what else has a deleterious effect on intellectual function? Stress. You know what diminishes stress? Pot.

  20. Lenoxus says:

    @JKB: I thought this was supposed to be an issue where libertarians wouldn’t make their vision of the perfect (zero drug laws anywhere) the enemy of the good (decriminalization for adults), but I guess that’s not universally the case.

    I suppose you could argue that a world in which those over 21 can legally use pot is somehow worse than the present, on the grounds that the “full impact of the justice system” will be on those under 21. But where’s the evidence that over-21 offenders somehow serve to deflect the system’s power away from defenseless minors? I agree that for-profit jails may have an interest in doing so, but there are limits on their power. They’re not going to suddenly double the sentences for under-21 offenders so as to achieve some kind of quota.

    In any case, the problems of prohibition weren’t/aren’t just about the infringement on people’s right to use alcohol/marijuana. It’s also about the black-market problem, which was hugely reduced by the end of alcohol prohibition. When high schoolers today want booze, they don’t have to fund organized crime, they simply ask an adult friend to get it “legally”. Presumably the same would happen in a world of legal cannabis for over-21s.

  21. James Pearce says:

    “More importantly, though, for the thousands of people who get caught up in the legal system on an annual basis because of these laws, there really isn’t any better time than the present to address this issue.”

    I have a weird perspective on this because I can drive down the street and literally go to the state licensed weed store, but in my mind it has actually become strange in a very alien way that people are locked up for it. I honestly can’t believe that continues, and I hope it ends soon.

    People in other states….you know what to do. Put it on the ballot and then vote for it, dammit.

  22. HankP says:

    Reporting in from Seattle, and believe it or not despite pot being legal for the last year and a half civilization has not fallen. The only difference I’ve noticed is that you tend to smell it outdoors a bit more on nice days

    Marijuana is an intoxicant, and like any other intoxicant some people will have a problem with it on that basis alone. But it’s pretty clear to anyone paying attention that as intoxicants go it has few side effects and even fewer serious side effects. I expect most states to realize this fairly quickly.

  23. Gustopher says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    It has been shown that alcohol consumption by those under 21 is really bad on liver and pancreas development and that those who start drinking below 21 are much more likely to become alcoholics. As for marijuana it has also been shown that smoking it at an early age does have a negative impact on brain development

    For alcohol, that is people who start drinking at a early age under the current prohibition. Kids will drink what they can get their hands on easily, right now, that is what adults drink — a mix of beer, wine and hard liquor. Legalize a low alcohol beer (3.5% ABV?) for 16 and over, and the results might be better.

    Abstinence education doesn’t work any better for alcohol than it does for drugs. If I had my druthers, there would be field trips to bars, once a year or so, for high school students, with adult supervision, so they get some idea of what alcohol does to them. Of course,I also think every car should have a breathalyzer on the ignition.

    Don’t ask about my ideas on sex ed.

  24. Just Me says:

    Michael Reynolds-it isn’t just the IQ study the indicates lot use in the teen years isn’t good. Pot use in the teens makes one more likely to develop mental illnesses. Now this likely triggers a genetic predisposition but given that 13, 15 or 17 year olds don’t have any clue if hey are genetically predisposed smoking pot is not a good idea.

    Generally what adults choose to do is fine, and at the very least for adult lot use should be decriminalized but I am absoluty opposed to legalizing pot use for teenagers (although pot and alcohol should be legal for 18 year olds-if you can enlist in the military you should be able to decide what health risks your willing to take).

    Just because lot is less addicting than alcohol doesn’t mean it is safe or isn’t a mind altering substance.

    There is pretty good research that lot use does affect the brain-although outside of teens who use heavily most of the effect improves if use is discontinued.

  25. Just Me says:

    Here is an article referencing heavy use among teens and it’s effect in the brain:

    Basically-arguing for legalization is one thing but we do our children a disservice by promoting the idea that pot is safe. Pot is a drug, it affects the brain and in the case of teens the development of the brain. It is connected to higher rates of mental illness and in teens higher rates of suicide. Pot is still a drug and the legalization issue doesn’t mean it is safe even if it might be safer than other recreational drugs or alcohol/cigarettes.

  26. Tillman says:

    @Just Me: Further study needed, of course. There are real downsides to weed to be cautious of, but the stranglehold on cannabis experimentation NIDA maintains means we have at best a foggy picture. Another reason to legalize would be to get better science on it.

    @JKB: I’ve honestly never come across the literature about vaping leading to smoking. Most people who vape and then smoke, in my experience, say smoking is a horrible alternative. It’s very hard to go into a prolonged coughing fit with vapor. Then again, this is coming at it after the teenage years, and we were all dumber/less experienced as teenagers.

  27. anjin-san says:

    Kids are already getting pot (and other drugs) if they want it, they always have, and they always will. This should not impact the discussion of legalization.

    The best thing we can do for kids is drop the scare tactics and give them reality based education about the risks of drugs, combined with counseling and treatment options.