The New York Times Talks to High Times

On Sunday, July 27, the New York Times made history, becoming the first major national newspaper to call for an end to marijuana prohibition. The editorial board’s op-ed, titled, simply, “Repeal Prohibition, Again,” is a forceful argument for legalization that reflects a tectonic shift in the paper of record’s position, which has, until now, been mostly conservative regarding marijuana prohibition and the War on Drugs.

The response to the op-ed has been a tidal wave of media attention. Gawker published a piece scolding the Times for its self-importance, saying “On the issue of marijuana, High Times is much more of a “thought leader” than the New York Times will ever be.” Be that as it may, the New York Times’ call for legalization is, in fact, significant. Even if the Times is behind the times.

Andy Rosenthal, head of the New York Times editorial board, told High Times that the board’s decision to publish the call for an end to marijuana prohibition was unanimous. An op-doc about Chris Williams, a medically compliant grower in Montana who received an 80-year prison sentence following a federal raid of his state-legal grow, helped convince the 18-person board that simply calling on Washington to allow states to decide their own course of action regarding marijuana was not a strong enough statement. Rosenthal called Williams’ prison sentence “deranged.” He said, “People keep getting arrested and put in prison. So ‘wait and see’ to us just felt wrong.”

The board felt that the differences between legalization, decriminalization and repeal were a matter of semantics, and that the only reasonable thing to do was to call for a total repeal of the classification of marijuana as a Schedule I drug, and a re-writing of the law to expunge marijuana entirely from the Controlled Substances Act.

When asked why the New York Times is 40 years behind High Times, Rosenthal said that although he’s been in favor of marijuana since he was 18, there is a “gap between personal opinion” and action by the editorial board. Early this year, however, it became apparent that it was getting more and more difficult to write about the situation in Colorado. The editors wanted to write positively about pot, but they couldn’t do so while the NYT official position was that marijuana was a dangerous substance that should be banned. “There was an increasing awkwardness,” he said. “It was becoming increasingly hard to write intelligently about the evolution that’s going on in the country without taking a stand.”

If one thing tipped the scales for the board to come out in support of marijuana, it was the new model of legalization in Colorado. “It’s not like they just took giant bushels of pot and threw them on the street,” Rosenthal said. “The experiment is working.”

The official White House response to the op-ed, that “marijuana legalization is not the silver bullet solution,” doesn’t have any meaning for Rosenthal. He said, “We never said it was a silver bullet. That’s one of those things that they do in Washington, where they make up something the other person said and then attack that version of it. I don’t even know what that means. Silver bullets kill things. The Office of National Drug Control Policy is required by law to attack any call for legalization of drugs — so we threw something in front of a robot and the robot responded.”

Rosenthal pointed out that the White House’s allegation that of 9 percent of users become addicted to marijuana is “a ridiculously low number. Look at the numbers for alcohol, look at the numbers for nicotine. Look at the numbers for heroin. It’s a very low number.” He also takes issue with the charge that middle school kids who smoke pot are more likely to get D’s than A’s. “No shit,” he said. “They ignore the fact that the only thing that’s going to stop a 13-year-old from smoking pot to the point where they flunk out of school is his parents. Not the federal government.”

Plenty of pundits have come after the NYT board for its new stance on legalization. “We got attacked by Bill O’Reilly, so we must be doing something right,” Rosenthal said.

Sunday’s piece was the introduction to a six-part series examining marijuana issues. In Part 2, an article on the impact of marijuana crimes on criminal justice, NYT editorial board member Jesse Wegman wrote, “As pioneers in legalization, [Colorado and Washington] should set a further example by providing relief to people convicted of crimes that are no longer crimes, including overturning convictions.” The New York Times now shares the responsibility to advocate for the release of prisoners serving sentences for marijuana convictions.

When asked about the corporate policy on drug-testing at the Times, Rosenthal said that it is up to the company to decide, but that the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., agrees with the editorial. Rosenthal marveled to High Times, “‘Weed’ today surpassed marijuana as a search term on Google.” We look forward to reading more marijuana journalism from the Grey Lady. She has a bright green future.

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