Gone with the weed
December 03, 2007
Cold Copy, Los Angeles Times
It took decades for the Los Angeles Times to come to its current position on marijuana, supporting its medical use and advocating lenient enforcement and penalties for small-scale possession. Barring a 1914 editorial suggesting the legalization of opium to reap tariff revenue, The Times' editorial board acted as an unrelenting drug warrior, even using war terminology before "war on drugs" rhetoric ramped up in the 1970s and 1980s.5, 1956, The Times showed no mercy for a marijuana salesman:
A man convicted of selling dope to a minor may have 15 years in which to think it over, which should be sufficient to make others careful at least.... These were the first sentences locally under the new Federal narcotics law passed at the last session of Congress. This law considerably increases penalties and provides a death sentence for sale of heroin to a minor.
The setting of such an example should strike fear into the dope peddlers, who are not deterred by conscience.
Three years later, on July 12, 1959, editorial board responded to a Pulitzer-Prize-winning Times series on narcotics that starkly depicted addicts in Southern California:
[T]he temptation to treat the narcotic traffic as a feature of an otherworld underworld is very strong. The result is that most people who sincerely believe that they have a certain minimum responsibility as their brother's keeper do not think of the dope peddler or his victim, the addict, as a derelict brother but as somebody as alien from them as the primitive Patagonian.... Nothing can be done about the inveterate addict. He is as damned in this world as Judas is in the next.
After the series ended a week later, The Times used its reportage as the basis for its fight-drugs-abroad stance. Until the 1980s, The Times would continually emphasize the need for Mexico to enforce drug laws at the border:
Every legitimate feature of the U.S.-Mexican relationship presses for a cleanup of the miserable narcotics traffic. It has helped to make the boundary of the U.S. and Mexican Californias the dividing line between respectable prosperity and squalid depravity. There is no reason why northern good living should not overflow the frontier — no reason except the tolerance on the southern side of the most inhuman of human indecencies.
The Times sounded that note again on May 31, 1962, broadening its call to include other countries:
President Kennedy has announced that a White House Conference on Narcotics will at long last be held late this summer. This may be a breakthrough in the war against a terrible enemy.... The fact is that the narcotics traffic is not only a national threat, directly or indirectly affecting every citizen, but is also an international problem. Heroin and marijuana must be imported from other countries, and thus far virtually nothing has been done to cut the foreign roots of the vile commerce.
A year later, on Nov. 6, 1963, The Times shows, between editorials filled with high-pitched anti-drug rhetoric, an early glimmer of a sense of humor on drug issues:
That report about marijuana-hooked mice in the Hall of Justice horrifies even the unimaginative. Suppose word gets around in mousedom? Evolution would go into reverse. Hopped-up mice might take over the world. Cats would become as extinct as brontosaurus. Human beings would be half-tolerated, usually behind the woodwork, or bred for laboratory experiments.... We are frightened.
On Aug. 18, 1966, The Times was serious again, but managed to sneak in a pun:
A huge task force of Mexican agents backed by troops has launched a "sweep" operation along the border, aimed at curbing this evil.... Such activity on the part of our good southern neighbor, pursued vigorously and consistently, should help ease the heavy burden carried by state, local and federal authorities in the United States, by nipping the illicit traffic literally in the bud.
By Oct. 29, 1967, The Times had to address the push to legalize marijuana. It came out swinging:
We strongly believe…that marijuana poses a threat to society, and that legislation outlawing it should remain in force.... Experts note that marijuana smoking, though not a true addiction, quickly becomes a habit. In some cases it leads to experimentation with genuinely addictive agents, such as heroin, and from there to crime to support use of that expensive drug.... It requires little imagination to see how young people can be dared or challenged or teased into their first marijuana cigarette.... The Times strongly believes…that nothing should be done with present laws that could be construed as making more permissive, and thus encouraging, the use of marijuana.
But within two years — and they happened to be those key late-1960s ones — The Times softened. On May 12, 1969, it wrote:
There is a growing realization that the penalties for simple possession or use of marijuana are too harsh and unrealistic, particularly for young first-time offenders.... Why…is a second-time drunk driver — a potential killer — given only a five-day mandatory jail sentence while a student caught smoking marijuana may be subject to years in the penitentiary?.... The Times does not condone the use of marijuana. By no means. It is a dangerous thing, a dangerous habit, and every effort must be made to stamp out the ugly traffic.... Branding a youthful marijuana experimenter as a felon gives him a criminal record for life. Therein lies the fault of the present system.
The Times continued its easy stance, mixed with a bit of its old morality, on March 26, 1972:
The best approach would seem to be a pragmatic one, to regard private marijuana smoking essentially as one of those "victimless crimes" where social harm is slight or nonexistent, where interference by authority is not really necessitated by any demonstrable threat to the community. What an individual chooses to do in privacy is his business alone, provided no harm is done to others. That choice may not be wise, or likely to win moral approval, nor is there need to sanction it by law. But neither is there need for interference by authority....
But when Proposition 19 aimed to legalize the personal use and possession of marijuana, The Times said no on Sep. 13, 1972:
We believe decisions ought to be made more carefully, and frankly, more reluctantly. The spread of drugs in America is of major concern. Perhaps marijuana can some day be separated from the terrible hard drugs, and made legal, like alcohol. But the linkage between pot smoking and hard drugs, though discounted, is not disproven.
Despite its firm "no" on legalization, The Times did continue to advocate reducing penalties on march 5, 1975, writing in favor of a state bill to do just that:
What the bill says, in effect, is that the use of marijuana is a crime — but only for two years. Defendants would not have to endure the lifetime stigma of a record. That seems a most humane and progressive approach.
Two years later, on Aug. 4, 1977, The Times is still against legalization:
If Congress follows President carter's urging and removes the federal criminal sanctions for possession of small amounts of marijuana, the action will neither reduce arrests dramatically nor end federal efforts to curtail marijuana traffic.
On Feb. 14, 1979, The Times printed its first editorial in favor of medical marijuana — a position it continues to hold today:
When safe and effective medicinal means are available to alleviate human pain and distress, those means ought to be made available to physicians for use by their patients. To add to the suffering often imposed by disease the cruelty of withholding therapeutic relief is inhumane and, we suggest, immoral.... Marijuana has been shown to be effective in the treatment of many patients stricken with glaucoma or suffering side effects from the therapeutic treatment of cancer.... California now has the opportunity to become the second state to sanction the controlled prescription of marijuana.... We urge the Legislature to act speedily to make that opportunity a reality.
By Oct. 5, 1986, The Times dropped the last vestige of its tough-on-drugs past, arguing that the international drug war wasn't working:
The Reagan Administration, pressing its luck after what it calls a successful anti-drug campaign involving U.S. troops in Bolivia, has begun to discuss similar deployments with other South American nations.... The United States may gain a little in its struggle to be drug-free with such drug raids, but they create political turmoil for poor, drug-producing nations like Bolivia that will continue long after U.S. troops are gone.... The raids are dramatic, but the war on drugs will not be won on foreign battlefields.... The real key to stopping illegal drugs is to persuade the prosperous consumers of the industrialized world not to use them.
Even when the war was looking up, on Sept. 7, 1988, The Times stuck to its guns:
Despite some recent highly publicized successes, the Reagan Administration's so-called War on Drugs remains at best a stalemate — especially along its most important front, in Latin America. The only conclusion we can draw is that — regardless of the time, money and manpower being devoted to attack narcotics trafficking as a police problem — the dirty business is thriving. It does so precisely because it is a business, and like any business it succeeds by responding to one of the fundamental laws of economics — supply and demand.... This is why the real answer to the problems that are posed by cocaine and other illegal drugs lies not in cutting off the supply but in limiting the demand.
And on April 4, 1990, before the non-inhaling president took office, The Times asked everyone to layoff a baby boomer who admitted using marijuana:
Like all too many baby boomers, T. Timothy Ryan, who is currently the Bush Administration's nominee to head the Treasury Department's Office of Thrift Supervision, smoked marijuana and tried cocaine about 20 years ago during the freer, flower-power era that stretched into the early 1970s.... Ryan's candor — and regret — concerning his casual drug use is being used against him.... Americans are far less tolerant of social drug use than they were 20 years ago, with good reason. But this kind of persecution — who used drugs and when did they use them? — should be discouraged to avoid blacklisting an entire generation.
And when Bill Clinton was about to take office, on Jan. 4, 1993, The Times hoped his administration would refocus anti-drug efforts:
America's drug policy — a lethal mix of dead-end positions and unfair laws — is now at a crisis state. And this is where the Clinton Administration comes in. In his choice of the new federal drug czar, President-elect Bill Clinton can redirect American policy away from its no-win position. He knows, or should know, that there is no magic bullet; but there is a very fast-growing consensus, especially among caring and committed law enforcement people as well as among health professionals, that America's drug problem is America's problem — not Bolivia's or Thailand's — and that the way out of the problem is to take on the drug habit directly here in the United States. That means America must stop practicing denial and realize that it has a serious drug problem and needs national AA-type programs to kick the habit and clean itself up.
But on Oct. 23, 1996, The Times came out against Proposition 215, which would legalize medical marijuana use. It's reasoning? Sloppy language:
Nobody's joking about Proposition 215, despite the laughs it got when state Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren got into a flap with Zonker, the eternal hippie of the "Doonesbury" comic strip.... Proposition 215, an initiative on the November ballot, would allow marijuana to be used for medical purposes.... But while supporters of Proposition 215 insist that its "meaning and intent" is simply to allow seriously and terminally ill patients to use marijuana, the measure would in fact do far more than that. It would allow physicians to prescribe marijuana not only for life-threatening illnesses like cancer but for "arthritis, migraine, or any other illness for which marijuana provides relief." That phrase is a major, fatal flaw.
But the proposition passed, and The Times tried to get state and federal lawmakers to clean up the law in several editorials, including this one on Nov. 29, 1998:
Much confusion could have been avoided had Gov. Pete Wilson signed into law a bill that would have provided marijuana to seriously ill patients suffering from AIDS, cancer and multiple sclerosis. Those are much stricter definitions than Proposition 215 contained. But Wilson vetoed the bill twice. Marijuana is dangerous. It can impair defenses against bacteria and can cause neurological impairment in the long term. But properly controlled, it can reduce pain. The federal government could help clear matters up.
And even as late as March 14, 1999, The Times wasn't ready to give into "the people's will" on that proposition:
When Californians passed Proposition 215 in 1996 to legalize the medical use of marijuana, then-Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren pledged never to implement the measure, dismissing it as a "disaster" that will cause "an unprecedented mess." Its status has been further clouded by adamant federal refusal to recognize the California law and by the absence of any state guidance to law enforcement agencies. Now, Lungren's successor, Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, has changed the course of implementing the voter-approved initiative. Working with police chiefs, narcotics officers and medicinal marijuana advocates, he has promised to find ways to implement what he calls "the people's will." That sounds like a lot of leeway. The right path for California lies in more in the center of the debate.
But by Aug. 31, 2000, The Times was ready to defend California's law against federal government intrusion:
A confrontation has been escalating between the state of California and the federal government since the state legalized medicinal marijuana in 1996. The big artillery came into play Tuesday as the U.S. Supreme Court issued a temporary injunction barring distribution of marijuana in the state for any use, even for terminal cancer patients. It is an impasse that could have been predicted. It could also have been prevented if the Clinton administration had shown responsible leadership on the issue. The Clinton administration is obviously reluctant to be seen as sanctioning a drug that many Americans associate with the drug-abusing excesses of the 1960s, including those of the president who "never inhaled." In fact, moving marijuana to Schedule 2 would help rein in potential abuses....
The Times has kept up that defense through the Bush years, finally relenting to the shift in public opinion on July 7, 2004:
It isn't surprising that the Bush administration clashed with California over its 1996 voter initiative that approved medical use of marijuana under remarkably liberal conditions. The Justice Department raided medical pot farms, arrested medical pot distributors and threatened to prosecute doctors for recommending or prescribing marijuana to AIDS and cancer patients and other chronically ill people. Today, however, the Justice Department's medical marijuana war seems increasingly out of step with the whole country.