By Marc Jampole
I’m about to perform a feat of rhetorical daring and originality: I’m going to proffer a written opinion about the legalization of marijuana without sharing my experiences or lack of experiences with the drug.
It seems as if virtually every pundit has to share his or her smoking history when offering an opinion or a prediction. It was started earlier this week by New York Times columnist and National Public Radio commentator David Brooks, who always looks to me as if he has indulged in the munchies a bit too often (and I mean that in a nice way!). His rationale for keeping recreational use of pot illegal is short on facts and reasoning, focusing instead on the experience of his group of friends—his clique as he calls it. They all smoked it and then moved on to their lives' work, except—in the anti-intellectual fashion of all great American myths—the one friend who was “the smartest of us,” who Brooks hints may have been destroyed by the devil weed. It’s this one neat detail that makes me wonder about the absolute veracity of Brooks’ narrative.
Since Brooks’ column, the Internet is reeking with reefer confessions. Joe Coscarelli, for example, excerpts from seven opinion writers who cop to blowing weed.
It’s a continuation of the ever-growing trend of the non-fiction writer to put himself or herself into the center of a non-fiction article. As an occasional rhetorical device, making one’s reactions or personal history part of an article can evoke emotions, illuminate a theme or support an assertion. But it seems as if every other feature article now features and often begins with a long session of authorial navel-gazing: an anecdote about the writer’s own experience deep sea fishing for zebra bones or the sexual excitement she felt meeting the world’s oldest professional throat singer or how learning about the repeated torture of a preteen reminded him of the fear he felt the first time he went to the dentist. Regrettably, putting the self into every article is taught at all the finer universities. Instead of turning out creative writers, our English departments have produced a generation of hacks who depend on a single rhetorical device to spice up the facts and analysis.
Of course, Brooks is entitled to his opinion, as are all those opposed to the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington. And it makes absolute sense that most of the vocal opponents of legalization are conservative. From restricting access to abortion to wanting to introduce religion into science education, social conservatives tend to want to control the private lives of citizens and keeping pot illegal certainly does that. Meanwhile, economic conservatives don’t want any control on the free market, and legalization always brings control—taxation, standards setting, workplace safety.
It’s ironic, but keeping pot illegal makes it an absolutely deregulated commodity. And we can see what happens in this free market: Much of it is controlled by violent cartels. The relationship between quality and price varies significantly not just from market to market, but from sale to sale. Buyers have no idea what they’re getting or the conditions under which it was grown and processed. Transport and distribution uses public infrastructure without paying for it, throwing part of the burden of paying for their economic transaction onto everyone’s back.
Now that we’re talking about it, the market for illegal drugs makes a wonderful case for government regulation of the free market.
Brooks and other opponents to the legalization of marijuana line up on the wrong side of history. Remember that the United States prohibited alcohol drinking for 13 years in the early part of the 20th century. And abortion was banned for about a century, a victim to the American Medical Association’s war against midwives (see Paul Starr’s The Social Transformation of American Medicine). Almost a century later, senseless restrictions on how adults behave in their private lives are falling left and right: gambling, gay marriage and now pot smoking. All come with regulations, as we can see with the greater regulation of cigarette smoking. I imagine that it will never be legal to toke up in a restaurant or movie theatre. And that’s how it should be. The government should refrain from restricting private actions, even as it intervenes in public actions and interactions, including the sale and purchase of goods and services in the marketplace.