Bill O’Reilly’s Pot Lie

oreilly-drugsThe New York Times‘ marijuana legalization editorial (7/27/14) got a lot of media attention. Unsurprisingly, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly wasn’t a big fan of it; and on his July 28 show, he attempted to debunk the paper’s position via clever editing.

“Over the weekend, the New York Times called for the USA to legalize marijuana all over the place,” O’Reilly declared. “No surprise, that paper’s far left on its editorial page, so its stance is predictable.” Actually, the paper called for a federal repeal, leaving it to the states to decide what to do about marijuana’s legal status. And given that a majority of Americans now support legalization (Gallup, 10/22/13), it’s hard to call this a “far left” position.

But then O’Reilly gets to the real issue:

The real reason, the unspoken marijuana play, is contained in the Times editorial, quote: “The social costs of marijuana laws are vast…. The result is racist, falling disproportionately on young black men, ruining their lives and creating new generations of career criminals,” unquote.

There you have it. The left believes American law enforcement targets African-Americans for drug prosecutions. Therefore, they want drug sales to be categorized as nonviolent offenses and marijuana to be legalized. It’s about race, not drugs.

Medical marijuana, Oakland, California (cc photo: Rusty Blazenhoff)

(cc photo: Rusty Blazenhoff)

O’Reilly calls this the “unspoken” issue in the Times‘ editorial–but it’s quite plainly stated in the piece. What he seems to be saying is that the idea that marijuana laws are racist is a myth. The Times¬†asserts that marijuana laws are racist, but Bill O’Reilly has some numbers that he thinks show something else:

Now, some facts. According to the US Sentencing Commission, about 5,000 criminals were sentenced for marijuana offenses in 2013 at the federal level; almost 98 percent of them for sale. Average prison time, 41 months; and here is the kicker; 63 percent of those convicted on the federal level were Hispanic. Just 11 percent black.

Only 5,000 people were sentenced in a year? If that sounds way off, it’s because it is. ¬†O’Reilly is talking about federal sentencing, a tiny slice of the drug cases. And these are, as he notes, almost exclusively about drug trafficking. It’s a classic misdirection.

But the real issue here is that O’Reilly has edited the Times editorial in order to make it easier for him to debunk. Here’s what the paper actually wrote–the bold section is what O’Reilly sliced out of his commentary:

The social costs of the marijuana laws are vast. There were 658,000 arrests for marijuana possession in 2012, according to FBI figures, 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.

When you look at those figures–over 600,000 arrests in one year–it is plainly evident that there is a racist pattern to marijuana arrests. An exhaustive ACLU report (6/13) found, “Marijuana use is roughly equal among blacks and whites, yet blacks are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.” For more on the obviously racist application of drug laws, read this Wonkblog piece (6/4/13) based on the ACLU’s findings.

O’Reilly is correct that this is “about race, not drugs.” He won’t accept the plain reality of the drug war’s obvious racism–and he’s willing to deceive his audience so that they won’t see it, either.


About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.