The Critical Mass

Hey, are you calling Carl Sagan stupid?

Marijuana_jointWith the onrushing Super Bowl featuring combatants from the two states that have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, this seems as good a time as any to recall a conversation during a dinner party at our house over the holidays.

It was late in the evening, post meal, and 10 of us were sitting at the dining-room table, surrounding a mountain of empty wine bottles. There would be hell to pay in the morning. It was getting pretty loud in the room. And someone asked, “What’s the hardest drug we’ve all taken?”

When the question came around to me, I kind of ignored it. That’s how I deal with any problem Maybe it’ll go away. It’s how I handled the broken latch on the front door. I put off taking it apart, put it off, put it off… and then, one day, it was magically working again. It still is. Pretty cool.

But someone kept pushing me on the drug question. I guess they figured the local rock music critic would have quite a story here.

“I think you’re going to be disappointed,” I said.

They were. Just about everyone had larger experiences in narcotics than I have. Mostly hallucinogens. No one volunteered any encounters with exotic excretions from amphibians, but they hit all of the benchmarks. Acid. Mushrooms.

And every one of these reprobates is a solid citizen. With a job. A loving, long-term personal relationship. With well-balanced kids, or content pets. A creative force in music or art.

Their drug days are now over, or at least so sporadic as to hardly count.

Now, not for a minute am I suggesting that there isn’t a drug problem in this world. There is, and it’s significant. I have friends who have fallen prey to it. I raise this issue not simply because of Sunday’s Stoner Bowl, but because there has been a lot of odd talk about dope over the last month.

David Brooks is the frequently wrong conservative columnist of The New York Times. I say frequently wrong because Brooks likes to write about the economy, then his co-worker Paul Krugman, a Pulitzer Prize winner in economics,  follows up with a column that has to clean up the mess. So Brooks has a habit of writing about things in which he has no expertise.

But not marijuana. Brooks has expertise there. He used to smoke dope as a teenager. Then he got bored and moved on to bigger things, like telling the rest of us how to lead our lives. He started off the New Year by creating quite an Internet giggle with a column called “Weed: Been There. Done That.” His point, which you can read here, was Colorado and Washington were wrong to legalize it. He wrote:

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.

I’m not going waste any time beyond this one sentence to point out the hypocrisy of the anti-government conservative folks suggesting our government should encourage specific individuals and behavior.

Brooks offers a half-hearted argument that smoking marijuana is a health hazard. Then, citing his personal experience as a young man, Brooks gets to his main point. That pot is bad because it makes you stupid.

I wonder if Brooks has ever written a column that called for the criminalization of alcohol. Because – besides studies that show it is more of a health hazard than pot – in most people’s experiences, getting drunk makes you act stupid. Other things Brooks might want to criminalize, because they make you act stupid: television, gambling, your college friends, Fox News, NASCAR, love.

Has Brooks ever eaten too much at Thanksgiving dinner, loosened his belt, flopped onto the couch and fallen asleep during the second half of the Cowboys game, rather than being productive and writing that next brilliant piece for the Times? Perhaps turkey should be criminalized.

Brooks isn’t the only buzzkill conservative. In a TV interview this week, Ann Coulter said American commerce is under threat because she suspects her pool cleaner was a pot head. On the very same day that Brooks gave us the straight dope on dope, the Washington Post‘s Ruth Marcus also attacked the country’s move toward legalization. After confessing that, yes, she has also done the deed. In her young, carefree, presumably immature days. “On balance, society will not be better off with another legal mind-altering substance,” is her argument. (Interestingly, that’s also how a lot of us feel about guns, which kill 30,000 Americans a year, way more people than marijuana.) Like Brooks, Marcus ignores evidence that marijuana offers some health benefits and cites studies that suggest smoking a lot of dope – lab rat and Tommy Chong levels, I suspect – lowers your IQ. I noticed that she makes this argument just a few sentences after she writes “an occasional joint strikes me as no worse than an occasional drink.”

Ruth! Which is it?

I don’t know. Once again I hate to disappoint, but it’s very possible Brooks, Marcus and Coulter have smoked more dope than I have. My main concern with the criminalization of marijuana is that it’s a weapon in the drug war on poor people. Another thing we learned this week is the only person in the country who doesn’t agree that pot is less a hazard than heroin and crack is the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Michele M. Leonhart.

Does smoking pot make you stupid? Brooks and Marcus survived the experience and have been rewarded with coveted positions as high-profile commentators on the rest of us and our foibles. Does experimenting with drugs more powerful than pot make you stupid?  Somehow our smart and witty holiday dinner guests escaped the brain trauma.

But Brooks and Marcus don’t have to take our word on it. The astronomer and teacher who opened the limitless possibilities of the cosmos to us, Carl Sagan, was an enthusiastic consumer and pot advocate. He credited smoking dope with helping him focus on the big questions of the universe. Surely they’re not calling him stupid.

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