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Essay: Glass Houses and Getting Stoned

6 minute read
Michael Kinsley

Using marijuana is . . . like what happens when a person with fuzzy vision puts on glasses. Listening to a familiar piece of music, such as a Bach orchestral suite, the mind is newly conscious of the bass line; listening to a conversation, the mind is more aware of the nuances of each voice . . .

— Charles Reich, The Greening of America

Right, and don’t forget the taste of food, and . . .

In the great debate over legalizing recreational drugs, the least convincing assertion of the pro-legalizers is that drug use might not even increase as a result. I can state for certain that drug use would increase. I don’t use drugs now. If they were legal, I would use them. Or rather, if marijuana were legal, I would use it occasionally instead of the legal drug I now use regularly, alcohol. To be sure, increased respect for the law is not the only reason so many middle-class, middle-age people have abandoned marijuana: you’re also no longer so carefree about where your mind might take you on automatic pilot, especially in public. But society’s official disapproval is a substantial deterrent. Without it, many of us would sneak the odd toke or two.

The dishonesty at the heart of the drug debate is the refusal of both sides to acknowledge the pleasure of getting high, a pleasure most participants in the debate probably have experienced themselves without damaging effect. That in itself is no reason to legalize marijuana, let alone more serious drugs. But sensible policy cannot be made without taking it into account.

After last year’s revelation that Judge Douglas Ginsburg, President Reagan’s brief nominee to the Supreme Court, had smoked marijuana, there was a parade of politicians confessing that they too had “experimented with” the evil weed. They all insisted that this was a youthful indiscretion that they deeply regretted, and they all were awarded little stars for courage and frankness. But where is the politician with the true courage to admit that he enjoyed smoking dope and does not especially regret it?

Both sides of the legalization debate cite the example of alcohol, without really understanding it. Pro-legalizers say other drugs are no worse than alcohol and it’s hypocritical for society to spend millions trying to ban the use of “drugs” while other millions are spent promoting the use of Scotch. Anti-legalizers say, hypocrisy or not, we’re stuck with the social costs of alcohol but that doesn’t mean we need to add other drugs to the vicious stew.

But alcohol is not legal out of tragic necessity, just because Prohibition was a practical failure. Alcohol is legal because Americans like to drink. Almost all drinkers indulge their habit in moderation, with no harmful effect. Quite the reverse: alcohol is a small but genuine contribution toward their pursuit of happiness. Society has decided that the pleasure of drinking is worth the equally genuine cost to society and pain to many individuals of alcoholism, automobile accidents and so on. What’s more, this social decision is correct. The world would not be a better place without booze, even if that were possible. The pursuit of happiness has its legitimate claims in the social calculus.

The mainstream argument for legalization is pragmatic: the war against drugs has failed, and the cost to society of keeping them illegal is greater than the cost of learning to live with them. Out at the fringes of respectability is the libertarian argument: people have the right to control their own lives, even to wreck their own lives, if that is their choice. Unmentioned as a reason for legalizing drugs, though widely believed and acted on as a practical matter by most Americans, is what might be called the Dionysian argument. Look, it says, the desire for an occasional artificial escape from the human condition is part of the human condition. It is not ignoble. In fact it’s healthy. Yes, yes, within limits.

Please don’t get the wrong idea. The author of this essay is no one’s idea of a wild Dionysiac. That, in a way, is the point. The desire to get high occasionally is not restricted to a small self-destructive minority. It’s shared by the most boring and respectable citizens.

The goal of sensible social policy should be to channel this natural human desire in safer directions, not to snuff it out, which is neither possible nor desirable. Thinking about the drug problem in this way focuses special attention on the role of marijuana. Current policy steers people like you and me, fellow bourgeois TIME readers, away from marijuana and toward alcohol. Is that a good idea? I’m not sure. Legalizing marijuana might steer the users of crack, heroin, PCP, etc., toward grass instead. Whether that’s a good idea seems much clearer.

To repeat: the mere fact that getting high on marijuana brings pleasure to the vast majority of its adult users is not sufficient reason to legalize it. The majority of people probably could drive safely at 75 or 80 m.p.h., but we can’t custom-make the rules for each individual and it’s the minority at greatest risk we have to worry about. If a significant minority cannot use marijuana safely, if grass frequently leads to more dangerous drugs, if it has dangerous long-term side effects of its own, if the problems of keeping it from children are insurmountable, these are all important and possibly determinative considerations. But society’s ability to weigh these factors is hobbled by its inability to accept the obvious truth: like alcohol’s, marijuana’s function as a pleasure drug is a plus, not a minus in the calculation.

In trying to make this case, it may seem like an unnecessary, self-imposed handicap to start off with a quote from The Greening of America, the definitive expression of the 1960s zeitgeist and possibly the most foolish book ever to be serialized in The New Yorker and debated on the New York Times op-ed page (though that is a bold claim). But just 18 years ago, a book rhapsodizing about the pleasures of getting high got the kind of serious attention reserved more recently for The Fate of the Earth and The Closing of the American Mind. This is a sharp reminder of how far we’ve veered in the other direction, to the point where the Dionysian impulse is considered an illegitimate subject for social policy, except for the question of how far we dare to go in smothering it.

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