David Brooks smoked pot - but you shouldn't

A Colorado man smokes marijuana on April 2, 2012.
Image caption Unlike this man, David Brooks 'left marijuana behind"

New York Times columnist David Brooks has a confession to make: as a teenager, he smoked cannabis. "It was fun," he writes.

It probably would have been less fun if he wound up arrested and in jail, like many of his fellow Americans. Fortunately for him, however, he escaped the long arm of the law, and he and his friends eventually "moved away" from pot - because it was boring, or they didn't want to become stoners, or they sought "higher pleasure" (pun probably not intended).

Now, with decades of experience between him and his youthful indiscretions, he has taken to the pages of the Times to opine on Colorado's recent move to legalise marijuana, which went into effect on 1 January (Washington will follow suit later this year). As far as he's concerned, it's a troubling development:

Laws profoundly mold culture, so what sort of community do we want our laws to nurture? What sort of individuals and behaviors do our governments want to encourage? I'd say that in healthy societies government wants to subtly tip the scale to favor temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship. In those societies, government subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being stoned.

Brooks isn't the only high-profile columnist to tut-tut over drug decriminalisation in recent days. The Washington Post's Ruth Marcus also copped to "her share of inhaling, back in the age of bell-bottoms and polyester".

"On balance, society will not be better off with another legal mind-altering substance," she writes. "In particular, our kids will not be better off with another legal mind-altering substance."

Brooks's column (and to a lesser extent Marcus') provoked a firestorm. "The Internet's spent half a day julienning this claptrap," writes Slate's David Weigel.

Bloomberg Businessweek's Joshua Green writes that he's met prospective cannabis dealers, and they're just the sort of "entrepreneurial young capitalists" Brooks might otherwise applaud.

It's the poor and minorities who are currently suffering the most under US drug laws, writes MSNBC's Adam Serwer. Even if they get caught using, people like Brooks usually get off with a slap on the wrist.

"Legalization means that other people, not just elites and their children, can have the opportunity to shrug off past drug use as a youthful dalliance rather than a life sentence," he writes.

The worst thing about Brooks's line of reasoning, argues Reason's Matt Welch, is he confuses the "absence of prohibition" with government endorsement of marijuana.

"There are a countless number of perfectly legal activities I may find personally abhorrent - giving money to a major-party politician, driving at the speed limit in the fast lane, rooting for the Boston Red Sox - but keeping them legally permissible is not a case of my values being trampled by the state," he writes.

Mother Jones' Kevin Drum thinks Brooks's concerns about the creation of a new population of stoners is overblown - and the Colorado and Washington experiments in legalisation may show some public health benefits.

"Marijuana might largely displace alcohol use, producing little or no net increase in intoxication but producing a safer society overall since pot tends to be less damaging than alcohol," he writes.

Slate's Weigel warns that stern warnings of the health risks of marijuana, warnings that prove unfounded, can have a serious consequence: "The greatest risk is from arrest, not from use - and anytime you use something that's supposed to ruin your life, but doesn't, won't you naturally mistrust the nannies who warned you against it?"

Of course, not every response to Brooks's piece was serious. Vanity Fair's Juli Weiner wrote a column-length satire in which she confessed to dabbling in David Brooks columns when she was a teenager. "It was fun," she writes. "I have some fond memories of us all being uninformed and feeling superior together."

And then there was author Gary Greenberg's satirical article claiming he was one of Brooks's stoner friends and that they once "clambaked his Mom's Vista Cruiser". That's more fictitious humour, although for a few hours some were taking the story at face value.

Reasonable arguments can be made as to why marijuana should remain illegal. If Friday's reaction to Brooks and Marcus is any indication, however, "I smoked pot and since have decided that others should go to jail for smoking pot" is not one of them.