Cheech and Chong Aren’t Dead Yet

Not everyone in the media is ready to take drug reform seriously

David Downs presents a lot of support today for the proposition that the media is, at long last, adopting a more grown-up attitude about marijuana. But for a sign that this battle isn’t over, consider Anand Giridharadas’s New York Times “Week in Review” piece on the limits of digital democracy, which treats drug-war reform sentiment as evidence of political frivolity.

When the Obama administration created an online “Citizen’s Briefing Book” to solicit ideas, Giridharadas writes:

They received 44,000 proposals and 1.4 million votes for those proposals. The results were quietly published, but they were embarrassing — not so much to the administration as to us, the ones we’ve been waiting for.

In the middle of two wars and an economic meltdown, the highest-ranking idea was to legalize marijuana, an idea nearly twice as popular as repealing the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy.

Why, exactly, this should be embarrassing to us apparently goes without saying. But it could just as easily be seen as a triumph of public agenda-setting. Our two wars and federal tax policy are indeed important topics, but oceans of newsprint and piles of pixels—not to mention lots of official government attention—have been devoted to those issues over the last decade. Marijuana reform, not so much. Perhaps the people had a point?

Giridharadas continues:

Once in power, the White House crowdsourced again. In March, its Office of Science and Technology Policy hosted an online “brainstorm” about making government more transparent. Good ideas came; but a stunning number had no connection to transparency, with many calls for marijuana legalization and a raging (and groundless) debate about the authenticity of President Obama’s birth certificate.

The “birther” debate is indeed groundless; good for Giridharadas for saying so. But the condescension on display here toward marijuana legalization is as unwarranted as it is automatic. Giridharadas seems upset that supporters of reform violated the rules of this online exercise by raising an issue that “had no connection to transparency.” But that’s exactly what you’d expect a political movement to do when it continues to have few “legitimate” outlets for its viewpoints, because the bipartisan elite consensus—for all the movement Downs cites—remains out of touch with much of the public. Indeed, while Obama is more “progressive” on this score than his predecessor, he is far from a champion for reformers.

Giridharadas does raise some real concerns about the Web’s role in spreading bad information, and what that means for the political process. But there’s no reason to tar all “Internet issues” with the same brush. The readiness to do so on display here suggests that not everyone in the media is ready to take drug reform seriously.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.