What David Brooks Doesn't Understand About the Marijuana Prohibition

The real victims of marijuana prohibition aren't stoners who won't live up to their full potential, it's the tens of thousands of young men and women thrown into jail for smoking weed.

Craig F. Walker/The Denver Post, via Getty

The internet—or at least, political journalists on Twitter—have been in a mild uproar over David Brooks’ latest column for the New York Times, where he defends the nation’s prohibition on marijuana by describing it as a government nudge toward individual self-actualization. Marijuana is illegal, Brooks argues, because it’s a base pleasure that the government wants to discourage. The key portion comes toward the end, after he describes his youthful experiences with marijuana, and the ways in which he grew out of the drug:

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.

“Discourage” is an awfully mild word for the reality of pot prohibition in the United States. Under federal law, any possession of marijuana is punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of $1,000 on the first offense. Multiple offenses after that get higher fines, and longer prison terms. If you’re a dealer or trafficker, punishments range from 5 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, to life in prison and a $4 million in fines.

But it’s not just that Brooks understates the extent to which our government “discourages” pot use, he also doesn’t seem to have any idea of how these laws play out in the real world. White, middle-class teenagers aren’t the people who suffer the most from marijuana prohibition. That distinction goes to black teenagers—and young men in particular—who are arrested by the hundreds of thousands at a rate that’s wildly disproportionate to their actual use. Despite roughly equal usage rates, notes the American Civil Liberties Union, blacks are almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana use than whites.

For a young David Brooks, smoking pot led to a little embarrassment in the classroom. Getting caught would have been unpleasant, but it’s hard to imagine it would have derailed his life chances. You can’t say the same for black teenagers in places like Chicago, New York City, Baltimore, and other cities around the country, where marijuana possession is sure to yield jail time and lost opportunities. Indeed, the stories are endless, from students who lost scholarships and financial aid, to young parents who lost benefits and housing eligibility.

In other words, the problem with Brooks’ column isn’t just the argument—which is flimsy and easily applicable to alcohol, tobacco or any other legal drug—it’s the blindness to injustice. Legalization will come with a lot of problems and complications, but at the least, it won’t be a world where whites receive a broad pass—and blacks, a strict punishment—for using the same substance.