Endorsing Legal Weed Does Not Make You a "Thought Leader"

The New York Times editorial board has finally endorsed legalizing marijuana. This is widely viewed as a landmark moment in mainstream drug policy thought leadership. It should be viewed also as a testament to the ossified uselessness of mainstream thought leaders.

If you were worried that you might have missed the Times' formal endorsement of legal weed yesterday, do not fret: the paper is turning it into a six-part weeklong extravaganza of editorials, complete with special graphics, a poll, a behind-the-scenes blog post on how the paper came to this momentous decision, and a generally unbearable sense of ponderous self-importance. The sentence "The federal government should repeal the ban on marijuana" is even given its own paragraph, to emphasize to readers just how monumental this declaration by a group of eighteen middle-aged upper middle class moderate professionals is supposed to be. So monumental, in fact, that it will take all week for the board to spell out the various details of the weed-related policies that it has decided should be enacted. For example, "There are legitimate concerns about marijuana on the development of adolescent brains. For that reason, we advocate the prohibition of sales to people under 21."

The New York Times editorial board members advocate the prohibition of marijuana sales to people under 21 due to concerns about its impact on the development of adolescent brains, in case you were wondering.

Here is the problem with all of this: you weren't wondering. Neither was I, and neither was anyone who has spent an iota of time thinking about this issue prior to yesterday. I applaud the New York Times editorial board members for finally coming to the abundantly obvious conclusion that the criminalization of marijuana resulting in the jailing of hundreds of thousands of otherwise innocent people is a disastrous miscarriage of justice; I also wonder why they were unable to come to this conclusion before July 27, 2014. This is something that has been clear to the majority of American high school students for the past forty years. The fact that it took our nation's paper of record this long to catch up does not inspire confidence.

The only reason the Times gets attention for expressing this opinion is because it is the Times. This is not thought leadership. It is thought following. The Times' endorsement of legal weed is remarkable not because we look to the Times for new or thought-provoking opinions, but because the Times is such a self-conscious, careerist, and cautious institution that if they want to legalize drugs, you know that shit is really mainstream now. It is the same sort of importance that you would attach to the Republican Party endorsing the legalization of marijuana.

Newspaper editorial boards are like the Wizard of Oz. Pull back the curtain, and you'll find it's nothing more than a conference room full of rumpled moderates chewing over whether it's safe to embrace things that bolder minds long ago began taking for granted. On the issue of marijuana, High Times is much more of a "thought leader" than the New York Times will ever be. A thought leader should be ahead of the mainstream, staking out righteous positions that others are too timid to endorse. Only after thought leaders stake out these positions do members of polite society, like the New York Times editorial board, venture forth and agree. Both the thought leaders and the timid followers have important roles to play in public discourse, but we should not confuse one for the other.

I do not say this to scold the newspaper for its position. Drug legalization is an issue that can use all the support it can get. I say it to kindly suggest that the New York Times editorial board—and all of the "serious" mainstream media "thought leaders" that define the boundaries of discourse acceptable on Sunday talk shows—ease back a wee bit on the self-importance. You're not defining the times. You're behind the times.

Stop taking yourselves so seriously. Nobody else does.

[Image by Jim Cooke]