The fact that David Brooks’s wistful, self-satisfied moralism cloaks a serious moral obtuseness is usually hardly worth noting. It’s simply to be expected, as predictable as Tom Friedman bumping into a taxi driver with pithy insights about globalization or Ross Douthat disapproving of his coevals’ sex lives. Still, Brooks’s lament about marijuana legalization is astonishing in its blindness to ruined lives and the human stakes of a serious policy debate. Somehow, he’s written a whole column about the drug war that doesn’t once contain the words “arrest” or “prison.” It’s evidence not just of his own writerly weakness but of the way double standards in the war on drugs shield elites from reckoning with its consequences.
Brooks’s argument, if you could call it that, is that he used to smoke pot and liked it a lot, but that marijuana should remain illegal in the interest of encouraging “temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship.” For him, the debate is entirely about the price of indulgence—the liberty to get high versus the costs of a stoned populace. “I don’t have any problem with somebody who gets high from time to time, but I guess, on the whole, I think being stoned is not a particularly uplifting form of pleasure and should be discouraged more than encouraged,” he writes.
What’s missing here, of course, is any reckoning with the social costs of that discouragement. According to Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know, a 2012 book by scholars at the Rand Corporation’s Drug Policy Research Center, there are currently 40,000 prison inmates with marijuana convictions, and “perhaps half of them are in prison for offenses related to marijuana alone.” A recent ACLU report tells us that between 2001 and 2010, there were over 8 million marijuana arrests in the United States, 88 percent of them just for possession.
The vast majority of these arrests, of course, are not of those in Brooks’s cohort. White people and African-Americans smoke pot at similar rates, but the latter are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested. According to “Marijuana Legalization,” more than half of New York City’s marijuana arrestees over the last decade were black.
When it comes to marijuana legalization, then, the pertinent question is not whether smoking lots of pot is good for you. It’s whether we should be arresting minorities en masse for using a substance that many if not most of our elites—even Brooks!—have at one time or another enjoyed with impunity. “In legalizing weed, citizens of Colorado are, indeed, enhancing individual freedom,” writes Brooks. “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.” Being incarcerated also makes it a bit harder to be the sort of person most of us want to be. The wildly unequal way our drug policy is enforced ensures that Brooks wouldn’t know anything about that. His shortcomings as a columnist ensure that he can’t be bothered to learn.