A New Phase In the Marijuana Legalization Debate

On Sunday, the New York Times editorialized for the first time in favor of a repeal of the federal ban on marijuana, and did so in dramatic fashion, with a statement on the front page of the Sunday Review section and two more pieces going into greater detail. It wasn't particularly surprising, given the generally liberal bent of the Times editorial page and the fact that support for legalization has moved firmly into the mainstream. But it's still important, because the Times remains the most influential news outlet in the country, and they have an unrivaled ability to set the agenda for the rest of the media.

There is a shift going on in this debate, and it isn't just that mainstream politicians and newspapers can now support legalization. It's also that the central question of the debate has changed, and changed to what legalization advocates have been asking for a long time. Instead of asking "Is smoking marijuana good or bad?", we're now asking "Is marijuana prohibition better or worse than the alternative?"

The latter question doesn't lend itself as easily to scare tactics or "This is your brain on drugs" rhetoric. And don't get me wrong—the effect of marijuana on individuals is something we should keep talking about and researching. A big part of the reason we don't know as much as we should is that prohibition has made researching the drug all but impossible. Once that research begins in sufficient volume, we'll have more than anecdotal evidence about what health problems cannabis is actually good for, for instance. For years some advocates have been claiming that it cures virtually every ailment known to humanity; the actual list is doubtless much smaller.

But the policy debate should be about, well, policy. And policy is always about choices. Even when you do nothing, you've made a choice that the status quo is preferable to the alternative. And we're finally beginning to think seriously about what the alternative might be. It could be any number of things, and if the federal ban ended and it was completely in the hands of states, there would be a patchwork of laws that would, if nothing else, show us what was working and what wasn't.

It's entirely possible that within a very short time a bill to end federal prohibition could pass Congress. Support for legalization could be the default Democratic position within a few years (it's almost there already), and there are at least some Republicans of a more libertarian bent who support it as well. Of course, you'd also need a president willing to sign it into law, but I wouldn't be surprised if it ends up being some future Republican who does it, just like Nixon was the one who could go to China.

As we move toward something resembling a reasonable debate on the issue, it's important for advocates to acknowledge that there may be some negative effects of legalization. Marijuana use would almost certainly rise, and with it some kinds of irresponsible behavior or accidents—people driving while high, and emergency room visits for people who ingested more than they thought they did when consuming edibles.

The question, just as it was with alcohol in the 1930s, is how serious those problems are on a societal level and how they weigh against the harms of prohibition. The problem that prohibition advocates have is that so much of their rhetoric hasn't changed in decades, steeped in culture war resentments and reliant on fear-mongering.

Marijuana is almost certainly going to become legal in more states in the next few years, and federal legalization could happen eventually. As Mark Kleiman says, as we debate whether to legalize, we're not spending nearly enough time thinking about how to legalize. On both topics, if we're going to craft policies that will minimize the ill effects of discarding prohibition and maximize the benefits, we need to have a debate that's as serious and fact-based as possible. Who knows, it just might happen.