A vendor weighs buds for medical marijuana patients at Los Angeles's first-ever cannabis farmers market on July 4.
  • FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
  • A vendor weighs buds for medical marijuana patients at Los Angeles’s first-ever cannabis farmer’s market on July 4.

“It is long past time to repeal this version of Prohibition,” the New York Times said Sunday, in an editorial calling for an end to the federal ban on marijuana. It will be even longer past time before this version of Prohibition is repealed. The NYT conceded that the present Congress “is as unlikely to take action on marijuana as it has been on other big issues.”

But the ban will ultimately end. The momentum is firmly in that direction. The Times said its decision to call for repeal was “inspired by a rapidly growing movement among the states to reform marijuana laws.” Twenty-three states have legalized medical marijuana, other states have reduced penalties, and Colorado and Washington have legalized recreational marijuana.

The Times reminded its readers of the social costs of marijuana laws, pointing to the 658,000 arrests for marijuana possession in 2012, compared with 256,000 for cocaine, heroin, and their derivatives. “Even worse, the result is racist, falling disproportionately on young black men, ruining their lives and creating new generations of career criminals,” the editorial said.

A retreat from our drug war would be good news for the urban poor, who have suffered most from it. But the impact will be limited until the nation moves well beyond legalizing marijuana.

Pot arrests may sometimes ruin lives, as the Times said, but they do so far less often than cocaine and heroin arrests. Marijuana busts rarely lead to felony convictions; cocaine and heroin arrests often do. In Illinois, possession of fewer than 30 grams of cannabis is a misdemeanor; possession of even a trace of cocaine or heroin is a felony. Marijuana arrests even more rarely lead to prison. In Illinois, 17.5 percent of the prison population was doing time for controlled substances crimes as of June 2012. The vast majority of those offenses involved cocaine and heroin. Only 1.7 percent were serving sentences for cannabis violations.

And the marijuana trade causes much less of the violence in Chicago and other U.S. cities than does the trade in cocaine and heroin. Rocks and blows, not weed, are the big moneymakers for the gangs battling over west- and south-side street corners. Even if marijuana is fully legalized here, the daily shootings over drug turf will continue.

Still, the new stance on pot will be greatly beneficial if it shows the benefits of a public health approach to drug use as opposed to a criminal justice approach. Marijuana legalization needs to be a gateway to broader drug reform.

Law professor Douglas Berman addressed this in April in the journal Federal Sentencing Reporter:

New laws legalizing and regulating recreational use of marijuana demand that governmental monies and energies—which were previously devoted to drug supply reduction strategies, interdiction, and incarceration—are now directed toward new programming and investments intended to ensure safe and limited access to certain drugs along with revised strategies for reducing drug abuse and related harms.

It was too soon to predict how these reforms would affect the broader drug war, Berman wrote. But, he added, “once it becomes easier to understand and experience a serious, reasonable alternative to a criminal justice response to at least some drugs, the prospect of a full withdrawal from the drug war, rather than just a limited retrenchment in that war, becomes much more realistic.”