There’s very little anyone can contribute to the marijuana legalization debate at this point. We know the numbers: The American Civil Liberties Union reports that over half of the drug arrests in 2010 were for pot, and of the 8.2 million arrests over the last decade, 88 percent were for possession only — many for very small amounts. We also know that enforcement, like that of many other crimes, is often racist: African Americans are three times as likely as whites to be arrested for pot use.
But we also know that this debate is, at its core, a rather unpredictable means-ends calculation: Is alleviating these clearly unjust incarceration rates justified when we consider the effect of further destigmatization and normalization of pot use on society? Do we really want another legal alcohol-like substance floating around (yes, yes, I know, it’s an imperfect analogy for both sides) for people waiting to try?
Stop reading and take to Google if you want an answer to those questions. It’s worth taking up instead, I think, the advice that President Obama gave to his daughters over the past weekend: “[Pot is] not something I encourage, and I’ve told my daughters I think it’s a bad idea, a waste of time, not very healthy,” the father of two said.
But the question is: Who cares about his advice?
Just a little over 50 years ago, as the country stood on the brink of several defining social movements, pot use was a rarity in America. Gallup reports that only 4 percent of adults said they had tried marijuana in 1969 — there’s bound to be some underreporting in that number, though the reality of a very dramatic increase in use in the intervening years remains the same.
Back then, everyday life was a little less mapped out than it is today: There were fewer suburbs, fewer cars and stoplights, fewer stores, fewer schools, fewer school activities, more space between neighbors, more open space in general. The list could go on, but the point is that life lacked much of the structure we know today — it was far more common in many places for kids to play, unattended and cellphone-less, in unnamed parcels of land than in public parks or on the concrete of sprawling suburban neighborhoods. You had to be more nimble and to proceed more with open eyes, because everything didn’t have a sign on it. And while life was less structured, it was more compact — your neighbors knew you, and it was possible that the entire town, for better or for worse, knew you.
One of the big changes of the past 50 years has occurred in the manner in which people form communities, which has gone from being a matter of necessity in everyday life to a completely voluntary association. People now move to the communities they want to join, and even then they can withdraw at any time — an option not open to most in history.
What this also means is that parents are less aware of what their children are doing than ever before. Think about the infinite number of things you could do, in high school and now in college, without your parents being aware. Think of the effect your mother’s worried face or her stifled tears could have on you when she found out about your transgressions. It matters less and less what President Obama — or any other parent in the country — thinks, as he’s less likely to find out if his daughters are smoking pot than 50 years ago. And he’s also less likely to influence their decision if he does find out.
Increasingly, the only person left to shape your want and desires is yourself, with family and community replaced by media and the microcultures of cliques and friend groups, who do not often have an individual’s best interests at heart. There’s less wisdom for young people today to draw from, because the structure is such that they often didn’t receive any.
In short, it means that the forces shaping our wants and desires, many of which we don’t control despite our myopic belief in our own autonomy, have grown more impersonal — and consequently, less responsible for our outcomes. All the while, life today is both more structured and the list of freedoms, drugs included, more dangerous. And the politicization of many of these freedoms makes autonomous decision making, as opposed to just accepting the narrative thrown at you, even more difficult.
Whether pot legalization is worth the cost today will inevitably be answered by state legalization projects over the next couple of years. But one thing remains clear: If legalization were happening 50 years ago, pot users would be better off.
John Aroutiounian is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. His columns run on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.