If you’re a writer who’s been in the game long enough to enter the word “journalist” on a tax form, you have had this experience: After toiling long and hard on a piece, crafting subtle-yet-devastating arguments, marshaling evidence, paring quotes, and delivering a killer conclusion, you wake up on the morning of its publication to find the entire enterprise destroyed by a thoughtless headline. Or a silly headline. Or a stupid, nonsensical headline. Or a headline that is diametrically opposed to the very point you were trying to make.
That is what I imagine Tom James experienced on Monday morning.
James is the author of the Atlantic Monthly feature that dropped yesterday under the headline “The Failed Promise of Legal Pot.”
Nice headline. Provocative. Clickable. And false to the bone.
James’s 4,500-word piece gets at a couple of undeniable truths. In America’s three legal, regulated, commercial states, the black market for cannabis has winnowed considerably but hasn’t completely disappeared. And the racial disparities in arrests that existed during prohibition still exist after prohibition’s end. Colorado, Oregon, and Washington arrest far fewer people now than they did in 2011, but people of color still face higher rates of arrest than white people.
That’s it. That’s the “failed promise” of legal pot.
The successful promise of legal pot is this: In Washington, arrests for cannabis possession have dropped by 98 percent. In Colorado, they’ve fallen by 95 percent. Cannabis taxes in both states are generating tens of millions of dollars a year for education and public health. In Oregon, the legal cannabis industry has created 2,156 jobs and $46 million in wages.
Many of those positive notes were taken from Tom James’s own piece in The Atlantic. In fact, James himself makes it clear that the very headline of his piece is false:
“It would be a mistake to call marijuana legalization a failure, even in the loosest sense of the word.”
Here’s the rest of that paragraph:
"After all, nationally, just fewer than one in eight marijuana arrests on average are for distribution; the other seven are for simple possession. That means that out of eight marijuana arrests that would have happened tomorrow in Colorado, seven of them won’t, because possession is legal. That means seven Coloradans who could have lost everything—from their jobs to their housing to their college financial aid—as a result of an arrest or conviction will instead simply go about another day of their ordinary lives. But the persistence of that eighth arrest—the roughly 12.5 percent of marijuana arrests that are for distribution—means that legalization isn’t a complete success, either. Those few distribution arrests cause the majority of marijuana-related incarcerations, and still disproportionately affect black men."
So yes, there are still challenges to overcome regarding the racial disparities in the arrest rates for cannabis. But to acknowledge that and then blaze the header “Failed Promise” is not just an error. The Atlantic editors are spreading a falsehood that has real consequences for millions of Americans. Voters read headlines like that and decide to vote against legalization measures in states like California, Massachusetts, Arizona, and Nevada. Politicians glance at the Atlantic piece and decide to turn against regulated legalization in states like Vermont.
When they do, they allow good people to be destroyed by senseless arrests and outrageous prison sentences. Say their names. Bernard Noble, 49-year-old father of seven, wasting away in prison for 13 years for two joints in Louisiana. Lee Carroll Booker, 75, now serving life without parole for growing his own medical marijuana plants in Alabama. Raymond Schwab, the Gulf War veteran whose five children were taken by the state of Kansas because he wanted to move to Colorado to treat his PTSD with legal medical marijuana.
Here’s another name to say: Scott Stossel. He’s the editor of The Atlantic. I don’t know if he approved the headline, but I know he has the power to change it. He’s @SStosel on Twitter. Let him know how you feel.
Image Source: The Atlantic