Ruth Marcus, David Brooks, and Reefer Madness

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Jan. 3 2014 1:18 PM

Ruth Marcus, David Brooks, and Reefer Madness

Whoever's been drugging the tap water in the Acela, please just stop. Your efforts have resulted in complementary columns in the Washington Post from Ruth Marcus and in the New York Times from David Brooks. Unless ... did they come up with these columns all by themselves?

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Anyway: The shared Brooks/Marcus thesis is that marijuana was basically all right for young people to try years ago, before they became columnists, but that legalizing it will lead to a worse and lazier society. "On balance," writes Marcus, "society will not be better off with another legal mind-altering substance."

The Internet's spent half a day julienning this claptrap, and I'm not sure more hands are needed on the task, but call it a Teachable Moment or something. Marcus and Brooks sound like perfect parodies of clueless Acela Corridor pundits who think a lot about "society" without bothering to explore it. "In healthy societies," writes Brooks, "government wants to subtly tip the scale to favor temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship. In those societies, government subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being stoned."

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That's a definition of "society" that includes only some people and wishes away—or just ignores—the social damage done by prohibition and arrests. Consequences like sentencing disparities, which collar black teens for the sort of drug use/sale that people who look like me or have my credit rating could easily get away with. Like the mind-boggling police state abuses carried out in the name of catching drug users. I figure Washington/New York professional thinkers would have read what Sarah Stillman reported this year in The New Yorker, but just in case, here's one section about the marijuana charge that led to a police raid and a forfeiture.

According to a report by the Philadelphia Police Department, the younger Leon had a sideline: on the afternoon of July 10, 2012, he allegedly sold twenty dollars’ worth of marijuana to a confidential informant, on the porch of his parents’ home. When the informant requested two more deals the next week, the report said, he made the same arrangements. Both were for twenty dollars, purchased with marked bills provided by police.
Around 5 p.m. on July 19th, Leon, Sr., was in his bedroom recovering from surgery when he was startled by a loud noise. “I thought the house was blowing up,” he recalls. The police “had some sort of big, long club and four guys hit the door with it, and knocked the whole door right down.” swat-team officers in riot gear were raiding his home. One of the officers placed Leon, Jr., in handcuffs and said, “Apologize to your father for what you’ve done.” Leon, Jr., was taken off to jail, where he remains, awaiting trial.
The police returned about a month after the raid. Owing to the allegations against Leon, Jr., the state was now seeking to take the Adamses’ home and to sell it at a biannual city auction, with the proceeds split between the district attorney’s office and the police department. All of this could occur even if Leon, Jr., was acquitted in criminal court; in fact, the process could be completed even before he stood trial.

Isn't this what Brooks is talking about, favorably? If you want to send the message that your society condemns a certain behavior, rendering people homeless because that behavior happened on their porch is one way to do it.

But that's obviously crazy, especially because the damage done by recreational use of marijuana is so petty. Marcus acknowledges that in her column before jerking back to the "think of the children" argument. She cites the American Medical Association, which warns that "heavy cannabis use in adolescence causes persistent impairments in neurocognitive performance and IQ, and use is associated with increased rates of anxiety, mood, and psychotic thought disorders." OK, then, case closed: "Heavy" use of something justifies locking up people for using it or distributing it in any amount whatsoever.

If you've got to pick a winner out of these two awful columns, you've probably got to go for Brooks. Marcus makes a glib reference to her experimentation in the days of "bell-bottoms and polyester," but Brooks makes the sort of interesting quasi-confessional usually reserved for the "Modern Love" section of the NYT. He confesses that he did stupid things while high, things like a botched speech before a class—and reader, you know that David Brooks could never make a bad speech if some demon weed wasn't polluting him!

Actual confession: I smoke pot. I've never bought it, but I've had it when friends bring it out to enliven a party. Frankly, I'm a terrible pothead. Having never really smoked cigarettes, I'm all thumbs at lighting a pipe or joint. The last time I smoked, earlier this week, the product overcame the wan barriers of my tolerance and I passed out on a kitchen floor—actually a pretty excellent goodbye-to-the-old-year metaphor, though somewhat embarrasing at the time. (UPDATE: Should note that the time before this, pot was part of a lovely evening of conversation and record-playing. It's like any other drug, and the experiences vary.)

Point is, I didn't fear or confront any other consequences. I knew I wouldn't because none of the people I've smoked with, in D.C. at least, have found it impeded their work any more than a bit of heavy drinking would. As a habit, it's somewhat less dangerous than heavy drinking, as it neuters the violent instinct, is hard to overindulge on, and isn't as fun to ingest. (Your choice: Suck on a wet roll of paper full of vegetation in your friend's bedroom, or knock back an aged and aerated red wine across the table from a date?) 

I could go on embarrassingly about the benefits of the practice, and all the good it does for the bass run on "Heart of the Sunrise," but all that really matters is that people shouldn't have their lives ruined if they want to find this out. There's already a first-order danger of wasting time or embarrassing yourself from experimenting with any drug, legal or otherwise. The prohibitionists are defending the enforcement of a second-order danger, the complete elimination of a person as a productive member of society. Marcus worries "that the number who perceive great risk from regular use has been plummeting, from 58 percent to 40 percent among 12th-graders." Why wouldn't it plummet? The greatest risk is from arrest, not from use—and anytime you use something that's supposed to ruin your life, but doesn't, won't you naturally mistrust the nannies who warned you against it?

Nothing I've written here seems more insightful than the average Facebook squib. Most liberal arts students probably hash this much out in the common rooms during freshmen year. But we've been waiting for the prohibitionist backlash to follow a legalization experiment like Colorado's, and it seems relevant that the 'lashers have started with such thin and logically lazy arguments. That's all they've got, as people in the rest of the country keep getting arrested?

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.