When British Home Secretary David Blunkett announced earlier this month that England would effectively decriminalize simple marijuana possession -- it will become a ticketable offense next year -- the story played in newspapers across the land on this side of the water. And while editorial writers at leading newspapers such as the New York Times and Washington Post couldn't be bothered to address the subject, other editorial writers and newspaper columnists jumped in with both feet. The reaction was overwhelmingly, if not unanimously, positive.
The Santa Barbara Press News ran editorials lauding the British move on two consecutive days (July 15 and 16). "America's laws punishing the possession of marijuana for personal use do more harm than good," wrote the southern California newspaper. "The hypocrisy over medical marijuana shows how hard it will be to loosen the laws for other personal uses of cannabis. But it's high time to begin discussions about decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of the plant and giving people the right to decide what's best for their bodies."
The next day, under the headline "How to Lighten Up on Marijuana Laws," the Press News wrote that the US should follow the British example. Citing British police comments that enforcing the marijuana laws threatened respect for the legal system, the Press News wrote: "This is the kind of realistic attitude that law enforcement officers and political leaders in this country ought to adopt. But voters will have to lead the way."
The Colorado Gazette (July 16) also approved of the British move, calling it "an important step that will create a record US officials should study." The Gazette editorial also noted that the "main difference between Great Britain and the United States seems to be that some British officials have paid attention to scientific reports. Maybe US citizens should require politicians, DEA honcho Asa Hutchinson and other officials to read and pass a test on the 1999 Institute of Medicine report and the 1972 Shafer Commission Report before discussing marijuana again in public."
The Gazette editorial, which was syndicated for Freedom Newspapers, Inc., also showed up elsewhere. From Ohio, the Lima News (July 16) ran the editorial under the headline "Good Sense in England." In North Carolina, the Kinston Free Press (July 16) chimed in with a shortened version of the same editorial titled "Science Guides Britain's New Marijuana Law." And the Northwest Florida Daily News (July 20) titled its version of the editorial "British Have Better Idea for Marijuana."
The Chicago Tribune (July 20), in an editorial decrying congressional efforts to bar Washington, DC, residents from voting to approve the use of medical marijuana, also pointed to the British move to decriminalize. "Marijuana does not appear to concern people as much as it used to," wrote the Tribune. "Great Britain, which has the highest rates of cannabis use in Europe, has announced that Her Majesty's government will no longer arrest private users of marijuana. The controlled medicinal use of marijuana, as proposed in the District of Columbia, is hardly a threat to anyone. More frightening are politicians who stand in the way of anyone's right to vote on issues of great public concern."
At least two syndicated columnists whose work is widely distributed also addressed the issue. New York Newsday (July 15) columnist Sheryl McCarthy endorsed the British move, writing that "the United States should emulate its closest ally. Enough finger-pointing at the decadent Dutch, with their pot shops and needle parks (sic). We'd be in the same league as the normally straitlaced Brits. A less flexible drug policy hasn't served the British well, since they have one of the highest drug-death rates in Western Europe. So it's time to try something more sensible."
Calling drug policy "the third rail of American politics," McCarthy wrote that most politicians are afraid to discuss drug reform, but are lagging behind their constituents. "The big obstacle is the federal law that forbids the use or possession or sale of marijuana, and even it use for medical reasons," wrote McCarthy. "The federal government should get out of the way and let the states adopt more reasonable policies if they see fit. And the states, in short, should follow the Brits."
And Waco (Texas) Tribune Herald (July 12) senior editor and nationally syndicated columnist Roland Nethaway added his two cents worth with some throwaway lines about stoned people now being able to tolerate Britain's lousy weather and cuisine. But despite his tired wisecracks and failure to really endorse or oppose the British decrim, Nethaway concluded: "Trying to follow the logic people use to combat drug abuse is enough to make you want to take two Valium tablets along with your evening cocktails."
Not all editorial reaction was positive. The Wall Street Journal editorial board was so deeply disturbed by the British move (or is just plain deeply disturbed) that it penned two editorials (July 12 and 16) opposing the move, and threw in a John Walters drug czar op-ed (July 19) for good measure. The first response was to criticize Home Secretary Blunkett for only going halfway, replete with a stupid pot reference: "It's not clear what this mishmash of carrots and sticks will accomplish, but it makes you wonder what the politicians have been smoking," yukked the wits at the Journal. A few days later, the Journal had hardened its position. Although it admitted that "the arguments for decriminalizing marijuana are well-known and not without appeal," it rejected those arguments. Instead it noted that the incoming Dutch government plans to restrict coffeehouses (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/246.html#netherlands) and argued that the European experience showed liberalization led to higher crime rates. "For the US," wrote the Journal, "the lesson would appear to be to beware legalizers bearing British gifts... The US is better off just saying no."
As if two editorials weren't enough, three days later the Journal provided drug czar John Walters with a bully pulpit to denounce the British move and drug liberalization in general. After worrying, among other things, that legal drugs could become "a disability entitlement," Walters intoned that, "The laws are not the problem."
Last, and in this case, probably least, was the Des Moines Register (July 13). Iowa's largest newspaper couldn't bring itself to actually editorialize on the issue, but it did run an article mentioning the British decrim and citing a local juvenile court officer who worried about relaxed attitudes toward marijuana. "The attitude is definitely more lenient," said the court officer. "Kids and parents do not take experimentation and use as seriously as they should."
Bringing an end to the drug war requires first winning the war of public opinion. If the editorial reaction to the British decrim move is any indication, pot prohibition in the US could crumble faster than one would dare to hope.