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I quite like David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, usually. He seems wise and not mad, which are really my two chief criteria for opinion writers. But he’s written a startlingly smug, patronising and complacent piece in today’s NYT in response to the legalisation of marijuana in Colorado, and since I have a very high threshold for smug, patronising and complacent, you know it’s pretty bad.
He smoked weed as a teenager, apparently. Which he just presents as one of the things you do, growing up. But he grew out of it – shocked, partly, after he smoked it before a class in which he had to give a presentation, and wasn’t very good at giving the presentation. And he and his friends discovered “higher pleasures” – sport, the arts, “science or literature”. So they all dropped the bongs.
All fair enough so far (although if he has a glass of wine during the interval at the opera, then it might somewhat undermine his point). But then he goes on to say that, even though he smoked it, and was fine, and grew out of it, and “I don’t have any problem with somebody who gets high from time to time”, it shouldn’t be legalised. Why? Because:
Laws profoundly mold culture, so what sort of community do we want our laws to nurture? What sort of individuals and behaviors do our governments want to encourage? I’d say that in healthy societies 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.
In legalizing weed, citizens of Colorado are, indeed, enhancing individual freedom. But they are also nurturing a moral ecology in which it is a bit harder to be the sort of person most of us want to be
I’ve done the whole thing about whether or not legalisation actually does encourage drug use before. The evidence suggests it doesn’t, I believe, but I won’t bang on this time.
More on drug laws
But what I will say is this: notice that, in David Brooks’s youthful experimentation, his “been there, done that” memoirs, in which no real harm is done to him by this relatively safe drug, there is not a section in which he is arrested, imprisoned for possession, given a criminal record and barred from several professions later in life. And in fact most of these “I took drugs in my youth, but it was a youthful indiscretion, and I regret it, so we shouldn’t legalise them” memoirs are all similar in a noticeable way: they’re written by successful people whose lives weren’t ruined by a criminal prosecution. That’s the “subtle tip of the scale”, that’s the way the government apparently “encourages the highest pleasures”: by locking up people and destroying their future lives.
Even if – even if – the legalisation of drugs increases use (which it probably doesn’t), we have to think very carefully about whether the costs we pay, in ruined lives and prospects (in America, disproportionately those of young black men), are worth the costs. Mr Brooks, if you’d been arrested for drugs in your youth, you might have written a very different column. Of course, you’d be unlikely to be employed by The New York Times to do so.
More by Tom Chivers