The New York Times was surprisingly late to embrace marijuana legalization

The New York Times released the first of a six-part editorial in support of the legalization of marijuana on Monday. The article compares the ban of marijuana to the prohibition of alcohol in the 20s and 30s. (Reuters)

The New York Times' sudden and dramatic embrace of the idea of legalizing marijuana came with both an unusually hip graphic treatment and a thorough explication of the rationale for the editorial board's decision.

But, interestingly, the move comes after a majority of Americans had embraced the position -- atypical for a newspaper that has often been at the forefront of social change.

Gallup regularly polls on social issues, including marijuana legalization. We took their graph of the trend over time and added a line approximating the Times' evolution on the issue. It comes well after the majority of Americans -- including a third of Republicans and over 60 percent of independents -- already felt that marijuana should be legalized.

pot-oct-13-times

On other social issues, the Times has been much more ahead of the trend.

Gay marriage

In 1999, Hawaii's Supreme Court declined to take strong action in defense of same-sex marriage in the state, prompting the Times to lament the missed opportunity. Nonetheless, the paper's editors suggested, "someday same-sex couples and their families will achieve the legal recognition and acceptance they deserve."

At that point, nearly two-thirds of Americans still opposed gay marriage. In 1996, no age group supported gay marriage; the most support came from those under the age of 30, but only 41 percent of them backed the idea.

gay-marriage-may-14-times

The death penalty

The Times has been explicit about its opposition to the death penalty for decades. Thirty-two years ago, the editorial board used a Supreme Court decision as an opportunity to lament that death was still considered a viable option for punishment.

Because of its commitment to decency and its stand that capital punishment is constitutional, the Supreme Court has condemned itself to years of policing of lower courts that are more concerned with moving to execution than respecting the idea that death is different. With time, perhaps the justices will see that the death penalty is so different that it is cruel, unusual and unconstitutional in all cases.

At the time, the country was moving toward a renewed embrace of the practice, after popular opinion turned against executions in the late 1960s. Gallup's trend shows that opposition to the death penalty continued to decrease until the early 1990s -- perhaps tied to rising crime rates. In the late 1980s, even more than two-thirds of Democrats supported the death penalty.

death-penalty-oct-13-times

Gun control

After President Reagan was shot by John Hinckley in 1981, the Times seemed to hold out hope that this might inspire the president to toughen restrictions on handgun ownership. In 1983, Reagan made clear he wouldn't, and the Times took him to task. Reagan's argument that even D.C.'s tough gun-control laws didn't stop Hinckley meant that the laws didn't work prompted the Times to respond, "the President's response raised the real issue: the need for stronger national gun control laws." In D.C., he couldn't have bought the gun, but he had no trouble in Texas.

This was a moment when opposition to restrictions on handgun ownership was starting to increase. What the Times advocated in that editorial wasn't a ban on handguns (except the cheap kind used by Hinckley), but rather increased gun control measures like better background checks. A plurality of Americans have continually argued for increased restrictions of that sort since 2000, according to Gallup's data.

gun-control-oct-13-times

It's worth noting that the paper's positions on all of these issues might predate the first editorials cited above. The point isn't that those dates be identified, it's that the Times has historically been ahead of the trend.

That it came to marijuana legalization so late is particularly interesting given the preponderance of evidence that drug arrests and sentencing laws disproportionately affect communities of color and the poor -- two constituencies for which the Times has historically been particularly proactive. Better late than never, proponents would no doubt argue, but imagine if that support had come earlier.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He is based in New York City.
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