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A vendor weighs marijuana buds at a medical marijuana dispensary in Los Angeles, California on July 4, 2014. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

New York Times Plays Politics in Pot Editorial

David W. Murray

By now, most people who should care about this know that the New York Times editorial board has called for the legalization of marijuana as federal policy. And they have not done so with diffidence. Perhaps basking in the aura of their days of stature, when the pronouncements of the editorial board on issues of the day would be treated as dispositive by a respectful nation, they have determined to go “all in” with a multiple part series on the drug, and have even made Andrew Rosenthal available on Facebook to silence the deniers.

But they are not quite the Grey Lady of old, and this weekends’ pronouncement has been received not so much ex cathedra as “excuse me?” The verdict so far from policy experts has been, “what were they thinking?”

Whatever it was, and theories abound, it was not science that drove them. I grew up respecting the Times for professionalism, and their science and medicine reporting was justifiably seen as an elite domain. Theirs was the world (in the days of Andrew’s father, A. M. Rosenthal) of the legendary Gina Kolata, of Nicholas Wade, and the redoubtable James Gleick. But there is no sound science behind this decision.

Their argument today has the whiff of a political rationale, shored up with appeals to sciencey-sounding notions. Marijuana, a “gateway drug?” Nonsense, they say; “claims that marijuana is a getaway to more dangerous drugs are as fanciful as the “Reefer Madness” images of murder, rape, and suicide.”

The allusion to Reefer Madness, as it is now called, is a point of fixation for drug legalizers, almost as much as is Al Capone’s reign of terror during Prohibition. But the film (so we read in Wikipedia), is a deliberately ridiculous “exploitation” promoted by Dwain Esper, a savvy figure who routinely distributed movies featuring circus freaks or with titles like “How To Undress In Front of Your Husband,” and was not in fact a government propaganda effort against marijuana.

That said, the academic literature on the gateway effect is clear. There is a pronounced gateway effect to early exposure to marijuana; it very much elevates the risk factor for use of other drugs. But on goes the Times. Not only is marijuana safer than alcohol, say the editors, but “far safer.” What measurement of far and near could they possibly be using? The Times has Janet Lapidus tell us that “far safer than alcohol” is “what the scientific establishment believes.” So there. Except, it isn’t. Marijuana, we now know from modern neuro-imagery, is teratogenic — that is, it produces brain anomalies, and THC is a neuro-toxin. And so on.

So, what were they thinking? What with the debacle of Colorado legalization starting to rain down on people’s ears (this is surprising? might as well have done an experiment with lead paint in a neonatal care facility), how could the Times still be stuck in the cultural guffawing of Cheech and Chong? Forget Woodstock and the peace movement; the drug being manufactured in Colorado is industrial dope, a high-potency new phenomenon the purpose of which is to get people hammered by intoxication, and to addict them with patterns of daily usage, currently afflicting, before recreational legalization, more than 6 percent of high-school marijuana users.

Very expensive THC “extraction machines,” costing upwards of $146,000, have been installed in warehouse grow-ops run by criminal gangs, churning up the entire plant to extract the potent oils with the objective of making youth “cosmically baked,” in the glowing words of Rolling Stone magazine.

If the objective of the editorial stance is not science-driven, then what is the motive? We have been subjected to the fanciful charges of the right-wing “war on women.” Wage equity is a regular cover story, when it is not the political craftiness of invoking those contraceptives that moralistic Republicans refuse to make your employer pay for. Are we to believe that the Times is foremost an advocate for poor women needing birth control? Or are they playing their part in trying to motivate the base, and hold the Senate this fall?

Such a motive may lie behind their marijuana gambit, as well. It may be that they are trying to change the topic from the current debacles of international relations by foregrounding dope as the most urgent political question. (Sort of like the teen-age girl holding her report card, who tells her father that they need to talk, but not before she gets his reaction to her spectacular nose-piercing.) Or it may be that they need the issue in order to get college kids to the polls.

Political pundits note that racial antagonism must be stoked, women outraged, and youth motivated or the President’s party faces a potential “shellacking” in November. Democratic insiders have already acknowledged the value of a marijuana thrust for generating youth turnout. A recent Quinnipiac University poll in Florida showed that young “Millennials” favor marijuana legalization by 72 percent vs. 25 percent.

Does the Times truly care about liberating smoked weed, or are they instead willing to mask their drive for political power behind a proven youth motivator, regardless of the damage? Are they that cynical, or just careless, as they strive to change the conversation about the President’s woeful record?

Science and medicine are not the only things absent from the Times’ new stance. There is also the question of what has happened to their moral compass. Such a consideration of morality in drug legalization policy is not in fashion today, but is it completely irrelevant?

July 29, 2014 marks the 181st. anniversary of the death of William Wilberforce, the moral compass and passionate crusader behind the abolition of slavery. Is there any justification for invoking the servitude and dehumanization of slavery in the same terms as drug addiction? It was once thought so. In fact, a compelling essay unabashedly makes the parallel explicit:

“The form of slavery under discussion is drug addiction. It does not have every characteristic of more traditional forms of bondage. But they have enough in common to make the comparison morally valid – and the campaign for drug legalization morally disgusting. … Like plantation slavery, drug addiction is passed on from generation to generation. And this may be the most important similarity: like plantation slavery, addiction can destroy among its victims the social resources most valuable to free people for their own betterment – family life, family traditions, family values….

In plantation-time America, mothers were taken from their children. In drug-time America, mothers abandon their children. Do the children suffer less, or the mothers?

Anti-abolitionists argue that legalization would make drugs so cheap and available that the profit for crime would be removed. Well-supplied addicts would be peaceful addicts. We would not waste billions for jails and could spend some of the savings helping the addicted become drug-free.

That would happen at the very time that new millions of Americans were being enticed into addiction by legalization – somehow.

Are we really foolish enough to believe that tens of thousands of drug gang members would meekly steal away, foiled by the marvels of the free market?

Not likely. The pushers would cut prices, making more money than ever from the ever-growing mass market. They would immediately increase the potency and variety beyond anything available at any Government-approved narcotics counters. Crime would increase. Crack produces paranoid violence. More permissiveness equals more use equals more violence. And what will legalization do to the brains of Americans drawn into drug slavery by easy availability?

Then why do a number of writers and academicians, left to right, support it? … Perhaps the answer is that the legalizers are not dealing with reality in America. I think the reason has to do with class…. The anti-abolitionists, virtually all white and well-to-do, do not see or do not care (about the damage to minority communities). Either way they show symptoms of the callousness of class. That can be a particularly dangerous social disorder.”

Pretty outrageous stuff, though it does make for compelling comparisons to our current legalization debate. It was written in September, 1989, as a column in the New York Times under the title: “On My Mind: The Case For Slavery.” The author was A. M. Rosenthal. We are unlikely to see his kind of moral compass any longer. That is to our disadvantage.

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