July 26, 2014

Roll It Up. Light It Up. Smoke It Up. Sayeth the NY Times.

The headline credit really belongs to Cypress Hill, but we'll give the Times a h/t. In an Editorial, the paper of record called for the federal decriminalization of marijuana. That's a big deal. As the editorial acknowledges, it isn't happening anytime soon, but momentum is growing and legalization feels inevitable.

I'm long past my weed days and I don't have any skin in the game. But, rationally, banning marijuana use makes no sense. It's perfectly legal to smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol, even though, as the Times notes, tobacco and alcohol are worse for your health. Bluntly speaking (yeah, I know), if health were our primary concern, cigarettes (and a host of other stuff), would have been banned ages ago. If we were worried about substance abuse and people getting wasted, we'd still have prohibition. So no, those aren't really issues that have any social traction.

I get that it's a "drug" and we are opposed to "drugs." Except it's not a drug the way drugs like crack, heroin, and meth are drugs. And if it is, it's not any more a drug than genuine pharmaceutical products, like Vicodin, Oxycontin, Percocet, and all sorts of legal opiate-based products. The addictive qualities of marijuana pale compared to these narcotics (codified as "controlled substances" in New York's Penal Law).

So the opposition is either a reflexive bow to a tradition of just saying no to drugs, other than all those that are already legal, or it is a political pose. Either way, like other social and political milestones that once seemed impossible -- a black president? a female vice-president? gay marriage and gay football players in the NFL? never! -- decriminalizing marijuana is a matter of when, not if.

But Lumer, if you don't smoke, why do you care? Because prosecuting low-level marijuana possession and use in NYC is part of a race-based approach to policing that has to change. As long as it is illegal, it provides a basis for stop and frisk activity and bullshit arrests in neighborhoods of color. Prosecutors like Ken Thompson can declare that they won't prosecute many of these arrests, but that won't stop the police from making the arrests, as NYPD Commissioner Bratton has already stated.

This is not meant as an attack on Bratton's broken windows model. That's a discussion for another day. But I do understand that as long as the laws are on the books, selective enforcement by the NYPD will expose the City to civil liability. Yes, there's a very good argument that the NYPD is already using selective enforcement, but that's precisely the point; they shouldn't be. The burden now lies with the legislature. The Times has this right, end federal criminalization of marijuana, and let the states do what they will.

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