Does More Marijuana Smoking Mean Lower Attendance at the Opera?

| Fri Jan. 3, 2014 11:49 AM EST

David Brooks smoked marijuana in his youth, but then got bored with it and stopped. He says it never seemed like a very uplifting pastime, and this makes him nervous about about legalization:

I don’t have any problem with somebody who gets high from time to time, but I guess, on the whole, I think being stoned is not a particularly uplifting form of pleasure and should be discouraged more than encouraged.

We now have a couple states — Colorado and Washington — that have gone into the business of effectively encouraging drug use. By making weed legal, they are creating a situation in which the price will drop substantially. One RAND study suggests that prices could plummet by up to 90 percent, before taxes and such. As prices drop and legal fears go away, usage is bound to increase. This is simple economics, and it is confirmed by much research. Colorado and Washington, in other words, are producing more users.

....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.

Brooks' column is getting a lot of mockery in my Twitter feed, but for once I guess I can't really join in. It's not that I agree with Brooks—and I'll concede that his comparison of pot smoking with "higher pleasures" is kind of silly. But for the most part, all his column does is express a fairly modest sense of unease about the fact that legalization will almost certainly increase pot smoking a fair amount. There's really nothing wrong with being a little nervous about that. These new laws will increase marijuana use.

But the big thing Brooks misses is the question of whether this will increase overall intoxication. It might. Alternatively, marijuana might largely displace alcohol use, producing little or no net increase in intoxication but producing a safer society overall since pot tends to be less damaging than alcohol. In the lingo, this is a question of whether marijuana and alcohol are economic substitutes or economic complements, and the research on this point is inconclusive. One of the great benefits of legalization in Washington and Colorado is that it will finally start to give us some decent data on this. For various reasons, it won't settle the question definitively, but two or three years from now we'll certainly have a much better idea than we do today about the net effect of marijuana legalization.

And if it turns out that legalizing pot reduces alcohol use? Then Brooks should be happy. There will still be plenty of idiots getting drunk and stoned, but there won't be any more than there are now. We'll have an increase in personal freedom; a reduction in drug war costs; and no significant change in the number of people pursuing higher pleasures. It's well worth finding out if this will be the case.