News & Politics

Washington Post Editorial Board Says "No" to Legalized Marijuana for DC

Marijuana activists are getting puffy about the paper's stance, saying it relies on old, faulty arguments.

Photograph via Shutterstock.

Just like Nancy Reagan and early-1990s television specials, the Washington Post wants you to just say no to marijuana.

In an editorial Monday, the Post comes down harshly against Initiative No. 71 appearing on DC voters’ ballots this November:

“But the rush to legalize marijuana gives us — and we hope voters — serious pause. Marijuana, as proponents of legalization argue, may or may not be less harmful than alcohol and tobacco, both legal, but it is not harmless. Questions exist, so it would be prudent for the District not to make a change that could well prove to be misguided until more is known. Foremost here are the experiences and lessons learned by states that have opted for legalization.”

The Post backed DC’s young marijuana decriminalization law, which changed possession of one ounce or less from a criminal charge to a civil offense payable by a $25 fine, but that’s as far as the paper is willing to go.

In fighting legalization, the Post strangely uses outdated language about marijuana’s reputation as a guaranteed “gateway” to harder drugs. The “gateway” effect has been widely debunked over the past 15 years, from a 1999 study by the National Institutes of Health to one in May from researchers at Emory University.

The editorial also cites information about increased rates of “stoned driving” in Colorado furnished by a group called Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a milquetoast non-profit that says it “believe[s] in an approach that neither legalizes, nor demonizes, marijuana,” yet can’t bring itself to utter the word “decriminalization.” The editorial board might have also checked the paper’s own reporting. As Radley Balko pointed out in August, the reason the number of drivers who test positive for weed is up is because drug tests only detect marijuana’s chemical residue—which can remain in a user’s system for days or weeks—rather than actual inebriation. Fatalities on Colorado’s highways are actually down this year from a 13-year average.

Perhaps the Post would have arrived at a different position if its editorial board had spent more time with Adam Eidinger, the legalization initiative’s author. Eidinger tells Washingtonian he offered to make a presentation—similar to how a candidate for office seeking the paper’s endorsement would—but all the editorial board granted was a quick phone call after the decision was already made. Eidinger e-mailed editorial writer Jo-Ann Armao, who writes about DC issues, last Friday requesting a meeting “in the coming month.” Armao wrote back about 35 minutes later, saying a phone call that day would be better.

In a phone call, Armao says there’s nothing new about the Post’s stance against legalization. The editorial board sounded off on the issue in January when Maryland lawmakers toyed with the notion and urged the state’s leaders to “slow down” on the rush toward legalized pot. While the Post has long favored decriminalization efforts, going on a week-long tear in favor of legalization like the New York Times did earlier this summer.

The legalization being weighed by DC voters is a much mellower strain than in other places. While it would permit possession of up to two ounces of marijuana for personal use for people 21 and over, home cultivation of as many as six cannabis plants, and the permission to transfer as much as one ounce—without payment—to another consenting adult, it would not create a regulated and taxed retail market like Colorado’s.

A newspaper’s editorials don’t have to agree with its readers’ opinions, but the Post is in the minority on this one. Polling conducted by the paper in January showed that 63 percent of DC residents favor legalization, making its approval this November a safe bet.

Eidinger also slams the Post’s “out-of-touch” rationale for relying on fusty, institutional views on pot use. The editorial quotes the American Medical Association’s warning that “cannabis is a dangerous drug and as such is a public health concern” and states that marijuana use leads to the use of hard drugs.

“Okay, hang your hat on the most stagnant medical group that isn’t willing to go beyond medical marijuana,” Eidinger says. “There are many doctors who believe that sitting in jail is more harmful to your health than marijuana.” 

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed

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Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.