David Brooks Doesn't Really Prefer Pot, So It Should be a Crime to Use It?

In Friday morning’s New York Times, David Brooks confronted the fact of newly legal recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington states by imploring readers to think of the children.

Instead of the children, his emotional plea turned out to be concerned only with himself. Brooks smoked cannabis (he calls it “weed”) as a teenager, and he didn’t like it, so he stopped. For that reason he has deemed himself justified, on one of the nation’s most prominent and respected opinion pages, to advocate for throwing people in prison for marijuana possession. That’s really his article thesis, but he couches it in prose that attempts to fool readers into thinking a ridiculous argument is reasonable.

If only for the comedy, it’s worth considering just why David Brooks thinks his teenage experiments with marijuana should dictate drug policy in states where he doesn’t even live, and at the federal level, too. His reasons are as follows:

1. “Stoned people do stupid things.” For this argument, Brooks gestures at academic studies. He provides a single piece of anecdotal evidence: once, he “smoked one day during lunch and then had to give a presentation during English class,” and he didn’t do well.

People who smoke pot have also created great art and literature, and written, performed and recorded groundbreaking music Carl Sagan wrote compellingly about the scientific and philosophical insights being stoned afforded him, which he went on to use in university commencement addresses, public lectures and his books. But who’s counting any of that?

2. Marijuana is bad for teenagers. Allegedly, teenage David Brooks had a friend who “became a full-on stoner. He may have been the smartest of us, but something sad happened to him as he sunk deeper into pothead life.”

The legal age to buy marijuana in both Washington and Colorado is 21, of course, but that’s beside the point. We don’t need anecdotes to demonstrate that strict marijuana laws and the war on drugs are bad for teenagers. According to the ACLU, arrests for simple possession of marijuana are one of the most common drug-related points of entry to the juvenile justice system.

Prohibition creates and perpetuates a black market, whose low-level employees are almost exclusively poor and minority youth. When they get arrested and incarcerated for possession and distribution, they land in Juvenile Hall, where they graduate to more serious and more violent crimes. Recidivism among juvenile offenders, many of whom violate their probations on more drug-related charges, is high nationwide. The juvenile justice system leads overwhelmingly to the adult criminal justice system.

The lessons these young people learn are lessons in a corrupt justice system—lessons much harsher than those David Brooks’ “full-on stoner” friend taught him in the Main Line Philadelphia suburbs.

When California decriminalized marijuana in 2011, changing simple possession from a misdemeanor charge to an infraction, juvenile arrests for simple possession fell by 61 percent.

3. Weed is not a “high” pleasure. Really, that’s what he says. Brooks and his friends graduated to “higher pleasures” and things they were proud of. So, failing to take pleasure in the things that made David Brooks and his high school friends proud should be a criminal offense in Washington and Colorado.

4. “Laws profoundly mold culture.” Here, Brooks takes us on a trip through his personal sociopolitical legal philosophy.

“Laws are not simply an instrument of power but an expression of societal aspirations,” he writes. “In healthy societies government subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being stoned.”

David Brooks has made a career of aligning himself with a political party that seeks, variously, to censor and depoliticize art and artists, to defund the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Parks, and to drill, baby, drill. Subtle encouragement, indeed. Any teenager stoned in English class after lunch could point out the irony here.

Apparently, Brooks also thinks that making things illegal will make adolescents less inclined to do those things. He believes that so strongly he suggests it’s worth continuing a policy that wastes billions of dollars, makes hundreds of thousands of nonviolent people into criminals, and has failed to decrease marijuana use in a single significant demographic, just to “discourage lesser pleasures.”

If marijuana had been legal in Pennsylvania in the 1970s, he deduces, he’d have liked it more, and he wouldn’t be writing for the New York Times today.

David Brooks is right about one thing, actually: U.S. drug laws do profoundly mold our culture. The war on drugs makes us more racially and economically polarized. It polices all of our lives and makes every one of us less free. In Colorado and Washington, to their credit, voters and lawmakers have sought to break that mold. 

For a weekly roundup of news and developments in the drug reform movement and the injustices stemming from prohibition, sign up to receive AlterNet's Drugs Newsletter here. Make sure to scroll down to "Drugs" and subscribe! 

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