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My View: Gray Lady finds a way out of the haze

The New York Times has seen the light. On July 27, the paper editorialized in favor of an end to the federal ban on marijuana. According to Tony Newman of the Drug Policy Alliance, The Gray Lady has become the first major national newspaper to support legalizing marijuana.

The Times did not celebrate marijuana use; it simply addressed the downside of prohibition — 658,000 arrests for marijuana possession in 2012, with a disproportionate representation of young black men. The editorial also laid out a rational view of marijuana. While research suggests that marijuana can have adverse affects on adolescent brains — hence the paper’s support for a ban on sales to those younger than 21 — it’s not as hazardous to health as alcohol and tobacco. The paper also made this common sense but rare assertion: “Moderate use of marijuana does not appear to pose a risk for otherwise healthy adults.”

My guess is the editorial board wanted to appear relevant instead of late to the party. In 2012, Colorado and Washington voters approved ballot measures to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. Last year, a Gallup poll found that 58 percent of respondents support legalization. I think The New York Times wanted to speak out before voters in Oregon, and perhaps Alaska, pass similar legalization laws in November.

Editorial board member David Firestone urged President Obama to order Attorney General Eric Holder to begin a study to remove marijuana from the federal list of controlled drugs. Likewise, Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colorado, has introduced the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act. While few observers expect the bill to pass, the Times’ editorial just might prompt a few lawmakers to rethink what has been knee-jerk opposition to change.

Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-California, signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill last year — and he’s a former prosecutor. “I believe that citizens in states across the county should be empowered to make their own decisions as to how to treat marijuana,” Swalwell said in a statement.

Apparently, it took marijuana to get Democrats to find a policy area that states should decide. Asked on CNN about legalizing marijuana, Hillary Rodham Clinton lauded states as “laboratories of democracy.” When Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, he said he experimented with marijuana but didn’t inhale. Now states are doing the experimenting.

Except California. In 2010, 54 percent of state voters rejected Proposition 19, which would have legalized recreational marijuana. The Drug Policy Alliance is working on a measure for the 2016 ballot that addresses the concerns of Prop. 19 critics and builds on lessons learned in Colorado and Washington.

Gov. Jerry Brown opposed Prop. 19, and he’s not likely to support any new measure. In March he told NBC’s Meet the Press, “How many people can get stoned and still have a great state or a great nation?”

It’s an odd stance for a governor who reduced the state prison population from around 150,000 in 2010 to 117,500 inmates. Do Californians really want police enforcing marijuana laws when other offenders pose a bigger threat to public safety?

Alas, Brown’s GOP challenger, Neel Kashkari, also opposes legalization.

I asked Swalwell if he thought legalization would increase use. He answered, “Honestly, no.”

It’s not as though it’s hard to get marijuana in California, where medical marijuana is legal. Then again, it wasn’t hard to find marijuana in my high school before medical marijuana. Prohibition doesn’t work.

Debra J. Saunders is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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