David Brooks and the Modern Marijuana Confession

I've long held that much of American politics is a neverending argument between the hippies and the jocks, as Baby Boomer politicians and commentators replay over and over the cultural conflict of their youth. And no issue brings that conflict more clearly to the fore than the question of marijuana legalization. Today, David Brooks wrote a predictably mind-boggling column on the topic, in which he reveals that he smoked pot as a teen but thinks legalization would mean "nurturing a moral ecology in which it is a bit harder to be the sort of person most of us want to be." I'm not going to spend time dealing with Brooks' argument, since plenty of people have done that already (if you want to read one takedown, I'd recommend Philip Bump's), but there is one aspect of this debate I want to take note of: the change in the nature of marijuana confessions.

It isn't just public opinion on marijuana that has evolved. Now, it seems, offering your opinion on legalization requires you to reveal whether or not any pot smoke has ever found its way into your lungs. This has been made possible by the simple passage of time: the generations that had little or no exposure to cannabis in their youth are now aging or dead, so most people aren't going to be scandalized when hearing that a politician or columnist smoked in their youth. These days, no one would feel the need to say they didn't inhale, as Bill Clinton did in 1992, as a way of mitigating the shame of their sin. We may be reaching the point where the default assumption until we learn otherwise is that your average candidate or pundit probably smoked at some time or another, particularly since most of them are of a class and race where doing so carries little risk of legal consequences.11 Consider, for instance, the case of former Indiana governor and possible future presidential candidate Mitch Daniels. When he was in college, the police caught Daniels with enough pot to fill two shoe boxes, plus some LSD and prescription drugs. Rather than send him to prison for intent to distribute as though he were some kind of commoner, the judge gave Daniels a punishment more appropriate for a fine young Princeton man: a $350 fine.

And it does seem that, like Brooks and The Washington Post's Ruth Marcus (who wrote a column almost as stupid as Brooks' today), the confession's greatest utility is for those who want to argue against legalization. "Listen," it says, "I'm no square." But there's still a requirement that the pot use in question must be a) in the distant past, and b) characterized as, if not completely regretted, then at the very least the actions of a younger, dumber self. One can certainly not say that one enjoyed it. So Brooks tells us of the time he got high before class and made a fool of himself in a presentation, and not, say, the time he got high before watching 2001: A Space Odyssey and enjoyed it, then had a stimulating discussion about the film with his friends.

That doesn't mean that progress on this score hasn't been made. Rarely does anyone talk about their youthful "experimentation" with pot the way they used to, as though they can be forgiven since the whole thing was supervised by a charismatic yet eccentric 11th-grade science teacher. The sheer volume of people making the confessions makes each subsequent one less costly for the confessor, and makes it almost impossible to argue that smoking will ruin your life (after all, you can be enough of a stoner to get high before class and still wind up with a column in The New York Times!).

But I'm still waiting for the pundit or politician who says not just that she got high 20 years ago, but that she still gets high even as a mature adult, and it's no less compatible with leading a productive, fulfilling life than having a few drinks on a Saturday night is. That'll be something.

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