David Brooks has a much-discussed, mostly maligned column in today’s New York Times bemoaning the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, two states that, he argues, “are effectively encouraging drug use.” Brooks is more concerned with the societal costs being wrought on the type of stoned, affluent teenagers he confesses to have been than the much steeper price paid by millions of poor, nonviolent offenders under the old system. But Brooks isn’t interested in policy here. He’s wringing his hands about the legions of feckless stoners he imagines legalization will produce.
As a former Coloradan—from Boulder, no less!—it is my grim duty to have to break it to Brooks that Colorado is already overrun by feckless stoners. Most are lovely people. They’re also a small minority of users. And they’re not the ones driving the push for legalization. The people who are driving the push are generally the sort of people who, in any other context, Brooks would approve of and might even celebrate with a thoughtful little riff in his column.
A few years ago, curious about the rapidly advancing push for legalization, I persuaded my then-employer, the Atlantic, to let me enroll in a new pot-growing trade school in Oakland and write about the experience. It was illuminating in ways I hadn’t imagined. I’ll admit that my assumption about the type of people I was going to encounter tracked pretty closely with what Brooks imagines such people to be like. But as I wrote in the piece, these budding marijuana dealers (sorry, couldn’t help myself) were nothing of the sort:
“The vibe at Oaksterdam was friendly, but without quite encouraging intermingling. I struck up a conversation with the guy behind me. Balding and bearded, with a ponytail and a tie-dyed shirt, he looked to be about 60 and introduced himself simply as “Hawkeye.” Hawkeye had ambitions to be a large-scale commercial grower—not strictly legal, although I did not sense concern. Yet he was the only cliché-worthy specimen I encountered at pot school. My 30 or so classmates encompassed every age, gender, and ethnicity; paid careful attention; and asked pointed, intelligent questions. Save for perhaps a slight overrepresentation of piercings and tattoos, nothing indicated an unusual field of study. The atmosphere of purposeful endeavor was like what you might find at a night-school business class of aspiring franchisees.”
In other words, what I encountered at pot school was a polyglot tableau of earnest, entrepreneurial, civic-minded young capitalists of the sort Brooks routinely celebrates and whose members were themselves, I suspect, already on the path to becoming loyal David Brooks readers, with their moderate-Republican concerns about government regulation, red tape, and generally being good citizens and neighbors.
So suck it up, David—get out from behind the keyboard and go meet some of these people. You’ll have more in common than you think.