As the legalization of marijuana promises to join the legalization of gay marriage as part of the unanticipatedly rapid social revolution that will define our times, we will be hearing certain ruminations. And not only from fire-breathing moralists easy to dismiss as “behind the times.”
I refer to wiser heads worried that legalization will raise rates of usage and addiction. The New York Times’ David Brooks has stated that even though he partook for a spell in his teens, he feels that legalizing marijuana will encourage more young people to smoke pot instead of exploring things more constructive and challenging.
Meanwhile, Ruth Marcus, who also acknowledges having smoked her share of pot in days now associated with “polyester,” worries about data showing that the pothead teen often lowers his IQ permanently.
This is hardly a new take on the matter. Mark Kleiman, a UCLA public-policy professor and a leading voice and author on the drug war, has long been convinced that legalization will raise addiction rates, and encourages more carefully targeted enforcement efforts.
To anyone who supports the end of the war on drugs—and opposes legalization in states like Colorado—views like Kleiman’s and the others’ can’t help but seem like a bucket of cold water.
Here we all are, excited about the “Hamsterdam” vision from the third season of “The Wire” coming true, in which the cops allow drugs to be sold in a carefully policed setting instead of endlessly rounding up the Bodies and Wallaces. And then here come these pundits and professors worried about increased addiction rates—it feels abstract, soulless.
Which is why it’s too bad they’re probably right. It’s how I felt when I debated Kleiman a while back. The burden is on the rest of us to explain why, if drugs were legal, more people wouldn’t use them.
But there’s more to the issue than this. People like Kleiman, Brooks and Marcus have little reason to consider that the war on drugs is the main obstacle, in our times, to getting past race in any real way. Running a society requires hard choices, and for me, quite frankly, that is a social priority to the extent that I consider possible rises in usage and addiction rates collateral damage in comparison.
It’s pretty simple: Because drugs are illegal, one can sell them for a huge markup, and that means you can make a living, or even get by, helping to sell drugs instead of getting a legitimate job. That black market stands as an eternal temptation—often quite a rational one—for a young Black boy stuck in a lousy school and growing up in a tough neighborhood. Two things result.
One is that for this boy, negative interactions with often surly White cops are the main contact he ever has with the world outside his neighborhood. Hence, generations of young Black men who feel like aliens in the only country they will ever know.
Second is that this same young Black man will likely either be killed or spend a long time in prison. On release, he will have no job skills and quite likely will end up back behind bars. His kids, whom he barely knows, will grow up with a stressed-out single mom and wind up living lives like either hers or his.
The end of the war on drugs would undo a great deal of this. Black boys dealt a bad hand would get real jobs. Anyone who says they wouldn’t lacks faith in fundamental Black strength and missed what happened when people said the same thing about Black women during the welfare reform of 1996.
Meanwhile, as soon as a generation of Black boys grew up without a sense of the cops as the enemy, we would be in a new America indeed. Ask a Black person why he or she thinks racism is still Black people’s main problem in 2014—if this person does—and count the seconds before he or she mentions the cops. With no war on drugs, the cops would have no reason to storm around Black neighborhoods, and Black America could get on with things unmolested.
That, to me, is a powerful vision, and weed legalization is a step along the way. If that means a few more potheads not fully realizing themselves in the way that David Brooks would prefer, I think the world will keep spinning regardless.
Ruth Marcus says, “Our kids will not be better off with another legal mind-altering substance.” But whose “our kids” is she most concerned about?
(John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including “Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.)