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Smoking After the Nicotine Ban

What will it be like when everyone is stoned and cigarettes are illegal?

By the time my children are old enough to purchase tobacco, I expect them to have to meet furtively with a man in a Hawaiian shirt in the back of a shady apartment complex in the hope of a nicotine fix. When they are inevitably arrested, the officer will stub out his cannabis joint and shake his head with grim resignation: “These kids and their cigarettes.”

This is barely an exaggeration. In my lifetime cigarette smoking has declined as precipitously as broadcast television or the Rockefeller Republicans. In 1990, roughly half of Americans were current or former smokers. By 2019, that figure had declined to 17 percent, even as increases in federal and states tobacco taxes had tripled the price of a pack. Indoor smoking bans have been implemented in 26 states and most large cities. Tobacco advertising, which once graced magazines, NFL stadiums, and even the NASCAR Winston Cup of blessed memory, has been reduced to manufacturers’ coupons sent discreetly by mail, like Victorian pornography. Smokers themselves are subject to the kind of public scorn once reserved for nudists.

Meanwhile, cannabis, which remains a Schedule I illegal drug under federal law, is big business now: quasi-legal in 33 states, employing some 400,000 Americans, and last year accounting for $17.5 billion in annual revenue. Billboards for so-called “dispensaries,” which remained open at the height of last year’s lockdowns even as churches were shuttered across the country, line the highways of my home state of Michigan. For reasons that might politely be described as mysterious, the clearly demonstrated causal relationship between marijuana and psychosis is irrelevant to the considerations of policy makers and investors in Big Dope alike. Nearly a decade ago, Ricardo Cortés published It’s Just a Plant, a picture book intended for “parents who want to discuss the complexities of pot in a thoughtful, fact-oriented manner” with their children.

It was recently reported that the Biden administration is considering a ban on menthol cigarettes alongside a somewhat more vague proposal to reduce nicotine content to levels it deems acceptable. How the latter would work in the case of cigarette brands which contain no additives and have nicotine in the amounts that occur naturally in plants of the genus Nicotiana, is difficult to say.

But I have a great deal of faith in the ability of schoolmarmish regulators to arrive at what they consider a workable standard. Which is why I have resigned myself to a life of crime. While I hope that I do not find myself subjecting the wayward youth of 2030 to anecdotes about my pet lizard or adopting the dubious sartorial choices and musical tastes of the neighborhood pot dealers of yore, I have every intention of becoming a tobacco pusher when it becomes illegal, which on current trends should be in about a decade.

This is not meant to sound defeatist. While prohibition might seem like a sad fate for a plant whose cultivation made the settlement of this continent possible and transformed a delightful indigenous custom into the only pleasure unknown to classical civilization, all hope is not lost. For I also have faith that one day the liberal scolds who now consider this habit antinomian will change their minds.

This transformation will not happen overnight. For years, indeed perhaps even decades, tobacco will be an underground phenomenon associated with the sorts of stores from which teenagers used to purchase Pink Floyd posters and lavender incense. The paraphernalia of tobacco smoking—paper, rolling machines, plastic lighters, perhaps even filters—will be sold under the wink-wink nudge-nudge assumption that it will be employed in the consumption of legal cannabis.

Soon a public-facing tobacco counterculture will emerge. Musicians will make not so subtle allusions to “Louisiana perique” and suburban teenagers will idolize them. “Smoker” flicks will feature tobacco-crazed comedians in absurd situations. Parents will shrug their shoulders nostalgically upon discovering their teenagers’ underwear-drawer stashes of Virginia burley, reminding themselves that they still managed to get into decent universities despite enjoying the occasional hit with their friends.

There will be a home for all of this around the margins of popular culture. But the real evolution will come when academics and journalists who are accustomed to serving as apologists for the criminal classes realize what a sad fate has befallen the nation’s cigarette slingers and their hapless customers. Sob stories will be marshaled along with statistics. Advocates of criminal justice reform will ask why my property should be subjected to civil asset forfeiture for the victimless crime of running tobacco leaves across state lines, and scientists will point out breathlessly that countries with high smoking rates such as Japan and Israel also enjoy the highest life expectancies in the world. Smokers will once again deserve the sympathy and even the approbation of polite society.

What next? I imagine with some admixture of horror and amusement that venture capitalists in blue states will race to get in on the latest start-up craze. Perhaps “tobacco lounges” in which it is possible to smoke indoors will open in the hip districts of our great cities. No doubt cryptocurrency will be involved. Those of us who surrendered our liberty to federal law enforcement in order to provide the nation’s youth with cigarettes might even be on the receiving end of criminal pardons.

After all, like the book said, it’s just a plant.

Matthew Walther is editor of The Lamp magazine and a contributing editor at The American Conservative.

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