Jonah Goldberg: Liberals in America come late to pot party

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With the usual fanfare and self-regard we have come to expect from The New York Times editorial board, the prestigious paper has changed its mind about pot.

It now believes that the federal ban on the substance should be lifted and that the whole issue should be sent back to the states to handle.

Not only did it issue a big Sunday editorial (the equivalent of a secular fatwa in my native Upper West Side of Manhattan), but it has since been flooding the zone on the issue with essays from members of the editorial board.

It is a significant milestone, but not altogether in the way the Times would like. For starters, the Times is pulling a bit of a Ferris Bueller here. It is leaping out in front of a parade and acting as if it’s been leading it all along.

It’s worth noting that the Times is 18 years behind National Review magazine and my old boss, the late William F. Buckley, and at least 40 years behind Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, who wrote in Newsweek in 1972 that President Nixon’s war on drugs should be called off even before it started.

And the libertarian flagship magazine Reason has been waiting impatiently for the rest of us since it was founded in 1968. (The left-wing Nation magazine didn’t get around to an editorial backing legalization until last year.)

Many GOP politicians beat the Times to the punch by years, including former Govs. William Weld of Massachusetts and Gary Johnson of New Mexico.

Conservatives and libertarians should always celebrate when liberal institutions finally catch up with them.

Still, I am more ambivalent about the national legalization craze than many of my peers, even though I’ve supported federal decriminalization (of marijuana, not narcotics such as heroin or cocaine) for more than a decade.

I don’t think smoking pot — especially to excess — is a particularly laudable habit for adults, and it’s a very bad one for minors. There will be real social costs to legalization.

But there are also real social costs to prohibition. Responsible advocates on both sides have recognized this for a long time.

Whenever policymakers in Washington are faced with a complicated issue with good arguments on both sides, the inclination should be to do nothing.

That is different than saying nothing should be done.

The best way to square the circle is to send the question back to the states to simmer for a while — or forever. And on this, the New York Times’ tardy position, and emphasis, on empowering states is absolutely right.

“The federal government should repeal the ban on marijuana,” proclaimed the opening salvo of a six-part editorial barrage. “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 Times’ stand is also hypocritical (and not because it still requires its employees to be tested for pot use).

In one of the companion editorials, “Let States Decide on Marijuana,” written by David Firestone, the Times argues that “consuming marijuana is not a fundamental right that should be imposed on the states by the federal government, in the manner of abortion rights, health insurance, or the freedom to marry a partner of either sex.”

There’s a whole lot of question-begging there. But let’s just stipulate for the sake of argument that all of these things are unquestionably “fundamental rights that should be imposed on the states by the federal government.”

What about cigarettes? Or the use of highway funds to force a drinking age of 21 (and, for a time, a 55-mph speed limit)?

When then-Attorney General Edwin Meese complained about federal bullying on such things, the Times screeched in 1986 that such a “horse-and-buggy view of the national union” would make it hard for people to “ever to take him seriously.” Perhaps an apology is overdue?

I’m delighted the Times is capable of realizing the error of its ways; I just hope it doesn’t stop with pot.

JONAH GOLDBERG is editor-at-large of National Review Online. His column is distributed by Tribune Content Agency.


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