David Brooks Fails to Defend Prohibition

David Brooks Fails to Defend Prohibition

Yet another embarrassing attempt at defending marijuana prohibition has been published in a major news outlet. David Brooks at the New York Times makes the usual personal criticisms of marijuana smokers while ignoring the serious issues surrounding prohibition.

The old claim that marijuana simply makes the user stupid, apparently invulnerable to scientific evidence, resurfaces again in Brooks’ piece. “Stoned people do stupid things (that’s basically the point),” he claims. Brooks goes on to claim that “reason, temperance and self-control” are “not qualities one associates with being high.” Perhaps someone should tell this to Irv Rosenfeld, who smokes approximately 12 joints a day while working full-time as a stockbroker. Many other medical marijuana patients would certainly dispute the implication that marijuana harms their reason or self-control, let alone that their motivation in using the drug is to make a fool of themselves. Many major studies over the course of decades have failed to find such “dumbening” effects from cannabis.1

Along the same lines, he claims that “young people who smoke go on to suffer I.Q. loss and perform worse on other cognitive tests.” The conclusions of a recent study did suggest this, but a more recent analysis sheds doubt on the methodology. More broadly, while there is some evidence of the heaviest users among teenagers having psychological problems, which may even involve deficits in “reason, temperance and self-control,” this can hardly be blamed on marijuana.2 Instead, as has been established with other drugs such as crack, those users who develop serious habits tend to have psychological problems dating back long before their involvement with drugs. As a relatively easy and reliable source of stress relief or stimulation, marijuana is understandably popular with those in great distress. This by no means shows that it is the cause of any of their problems, though, let alone that it causes the dumbing-down effects that so many studies over decades have failed to find.

Brooks claims that “smoking and driving is a good way to get yourself killed.” While attempting to smoke marijuana and drive at the same time is not advisable, Brooks is presumably trying to insinuate that driving under the influence of marijuana is likely to cause a fatal accident. This is not at all in line with the evidence.

For example, a recent investigation by CNN examined the driving ability of several medical marijuana users under the influence of gradually increasing quantities of marijuana. Police and a driver’s education instruction were on hand looking for signs of impairment. Their performance was not judged to be dangerously impaired until they had consumed prodigious quantities, over 5 times the new legal limits in Colorado and Washington.

Some studies with driving simulators similarly show less dramatic effects than Brooks seems to be implying. People under the influence of marijuana did not display the same recklessness, or the same obliviousness of their own impairment, as drunk drivers. Instead, they actually tended to become more cautious, such as by slowing down and increasing their following distance.3


David Brooks

David Brooks / businessinsider.com


Brooks even goes so far as to claim 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.” It is not clear how “encouraging the highest pleasures” could be construed as a matter for the criminal law, how a blanket prohibition on a multi-billion-dollar industry is “subtle,” or how laws denying adults full control of their own bodies help them to be “self-governing,” but there is another flaw in his attitude. There is no reason to believe that the “deeper,” “more satisfying,” and “higher” pleasures Brooks refers to are incompatible with marijuana use. The references to the arts and nature are particularly absurd on this point. Perhaps Brooks had access to some little-known, inferior strain of marijuana which did not increase the user’s appreciation of music or nature.

Brooks makes reference to pursuits such as athletics and science, as well as “going somewhere, becoming better at something,” and “learning more about something” as more satisfying sources of happiness and essentially reasons to give up smoking cannabis. Using the substance, Brooks explains, was “kind of repetitive.” The same could be said of eating, drinking, sleeping, and sex, but we generally do not dismiss these as “lower” and thus illegitimate pleasures. Instead, like altering one’s own mental state in general, they are natural and extremely common (arguably universal) human desires, and we should not expect someone to give them up simply because they found a hobby or even a career.

The issue in the news, though, was not the “higher” or “lower” status of the enjoyment of marijuana. The issue was the removal of marijuana prohibition laws. The appalling harms of these laws have been well understood for decades by those willing to take the issue seriously, and the best Brooks can come up with to oppose this is the suggestion that use will be encouraged and go up.

For the sake of argument, let us ignore the evidence from countries with more liberal drug laws, such as Switzerland, the Netherlands and Portugal. Let us imagine that “nurturing a moral ecology in which it is a bit harder to be the sort of person most of us want to be,” as Brooks cryptically puts it, is a serious threat from legalizing marijuana. How serious could this problem possibly be, such that it would outweigh the harms of prohibition?

Let us say for the sake of argument that about half of the harms from the War on Drugs come from marijuana prohibition specifically. This is probably not far off, since about half of drug arrests are made in connection with marijuana. If legalization would cut in half the drug-related corruption we see among law enforcement, or the dangerous overcrowding of prisons, should we avoid it simply to discourage marijuana use? If it would cut in half the funding of drug gangs, should we dismiss that too? The same question goes for prohibition-related violence, both by organized crime and by overzealous police, as well as for billions of dollars in enforcement costs and lost tax revenue. The list goes on, including the obstruction of legitimate medicine and the progressive loss of civil liberties.4 Should we simply abandon a clear opportunity to combat these social ills, out of desperation to reduce or “discourage” marijuana use?

As usual in pro-prohibition arguments, Brooks cannot engage any of the serious arguments of our side. Instead he simply falls back on tired stereotypes of marijuana users as stupid and lazy. Perhaps he should take his own implied advice and find the pleasure in “learning more about something.”


1. See, for example, the reports of the LaGuardia Committee in 1944, the Shafer Commission in 1972, and the most recent Institute of Medicine report on marijuana.

2. An Institute of Medicine report mentions the “strong association between drug dependence and antisocial personality or its precursor, conduct disorder,” citing a study which concluded that “it is more likely that conduct disorders generally lead to substance abuse than the reverse.”

3. Anthony Liguouri, “Marijuana and Driving: Trends, Design Issues, and Future Recommendations,” in Mitch Earleywine, ed., Pot Politics: Marijuana and the Costs of Prohibition, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 79-80. See also Mitch Earleywine, Understanding Marijuana: A New Look at the Scientific Evidence, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 220.

4. See here, here, and here.