If Stoners Were Angels

Haven’t we been through all of this before?

One group of citizens agitates in favor of legalizing some long-verboten practice, while another group of citizens argues to the contrary, insisting that such a move would hasten America’s moral decline.

The activity in question becomes legal in one of the country’s 50 states.  Then another.  And another.  Time passes, and when we are given enough data from which to formulate some conclusions, it turns out that the initial hubbub was unwarranted and overblown, and the whole business really isn’t that big of a deal after all.  Everyone’s life returns to normal, and the world just keeps on spinning.

That’s roughly what America has experienced with gay marriage over the last decade, and now, thanks to the states of Colorado and Washington, what we are about to experience with recreational marijuana.

Not that legalized pot and legalized same-sex marriage have anything further in common.  Nor, for that matter, do we know for certain that the trajectory of the former will mirror that of the latter.  One should never be too presumptuous about these things, no matter how strong the urge might be.

However, there is one way in particular that pot-smoking is different from most previous national prohibitions, and one that should hint at how its legalization will pan out.

Everyone has already done it.

OK, not everyone.  But a pretty sizable chunk of everyone.

In an August 2013 Gallup survey, 38 percent of respondents acknowledged that they had “tried” marijuana at some point in their lives.  The number rose to 49 percent among those aged 30-49, and 44 percent among those aged 50-64.

Mind you, these are merely the people with the nerve to admit it to an anonymous poll-taker.  While we cannot know how much higher the true figure is, we can probably agree that “higher” is the correct word.

As such, most who have written or spoken about the benefits and drawbacks of legalizing cannabis have, with little or no hesitation, noted their own past use of it.  More interesting still, none of these folks particularly regrets having done so.

In a widely-circulated New York Times column from the past week, David Brooks argued against the legalization of marijuana on largely moral grounds, writing, “[I]n healthy societies government wants to subtly tip the scale to favor temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship.”  By legalizing pot, Brooks argued, Colorado and Washington “have gone into the business of effectively encouraging drug use.”

However, this was not before Brooks recounted his own smoke-filled youth, reflecting, “It was fun.  I have some fond memories of us all being silly together.  I think those moments of uninhibited frolic deepened our friendships.”

You don’t say.

Brooks has been duly ridiculed for his highly mixed message, but I suspect his ambivalence reflects that of countless others, and it illustrates the unique conundrum of arguing against this particular drug’s normalization in American life.

To wit:  How can you credibly say that the wide availability and use of cannabis will alter our society’s moral fabric when, in truth, cannabis is already widely available and used, as it has been for the better part of half a century?

The argument from Brooks et al. seems to amount to, “Marijuana would be fine if only everyone else were as responsible with it as I was.”

On the one hand, one hears this and reflects upon James Madison’s observation in Federalist No. 51, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”  In other words, the whole point of most laws is to rein in those who are too dumb or too sociopathic to rein in themselves.

On the other hand, one cannot help but turn to the likes of Brooks and inquire, “If pot was so enjoyable and beneficial for you and your friends, why are you so quick to withhold its pleasures from everyone else?  What gives you the right, let alone the nerve?”

Here’s a thought:  In a future world where marijuana is a socially acceptable substance from coast to coast, maybe more Americans will act responsibly with it than we think.  More to the point:  Maybe this is already the case.  Maybe we who can handle our weed are not the prodigious outliers we fashion ourselves to be.

Maybe those who personify the “lazy stoner” stereotype come by it honestly:  They smoke too much pot because they’re useless idiots, not the other way around.

Gay marriage has turned into a less-than-apocalyptic reality in the United States because, in truth, it was not nearly the seismic realignment of national values it was made out to be.  Gay people already existed and marriage already existed.  What was the big mystery we were supposed to fear?

Likewise, when the dust settles, the legalization of marijuana may yet turn out to be one giant nothing burger, albeit one that, for some mysterious reason, is tastier and more appetizing than it ever used to be.

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