Type A Potheads Vs. The Stoned Masses
Prof. Edward Hamilton posts an Evans-Manning-winning comment on the David Brooks On Pot thread, which, as he observes below, turned into an example of the thing the original post criticized. In his comment, Hamilton postulates a theory about why middle-class educated people get so passionate about pot legalization — and why this is misguided:
The original topic of the post was not “legalized pot, good or bad?”, but a deconstruction of the fervency with which positions on one side of the issue are held. Predictably, the comments section has become a persuasive demonstration of that argument by completely ignoring it, in favor of simply restating arguments everyone has heard before. I’ve always been a moderate supporter of decriminalization (of the “these resources can be used better elsewhere” camp), but I agree that there’s something disconcertingly intense about the way that legalizing a particular controlled substance is regarded as a near-panacea for solving problems of crime, poverty, and social injustice. My guess is that within a few years of these experiments going public all of those problems will be in pretty much the same place they were before it started.
The analysis of why marijuana is this type of issue is more interesting to me. Here’s my theory, based mostly on unreliable anecdotal observations of the behavior of my own family members and peers (huzzah for the scientific method)!
Roughly speaking, about 90% of the population of an industrialized economy has a problem with boredom and lack of ambition with respect to education and the workplace. They move through an academic experience that revolves around learning things they don’t care about, taught in ways they don’t enjoy. Then they spend a lifetime at a job that feels tedious and revolves heavily around surviving until weekends and holidays. Feeling motivated about that life is difficult. The apparently return on investing extra time and energy in school or work appears low. The temptation is strong to disengage entirely and depend on support from relatives, friends, and the government.
A small minority of people, the other 10%, are highly driven and don’t really understand lack of motivation. They operate in high-powered environments where everyone else is pushing constantly for self-improvement and feels a powerful urge to compete. These people perceive an enormously high need to invest time and energy beyond the minimum required for a school project or job. Most of these people are upper-class, or at least from academically privileged backgrounds.
The latter group of people is terribly unrepresentative of the general public, but they set the policy agenda. By nature, they always take leadership positions, and invest lots of energy in any cause they care about. So they’re the figures you see debating on the talk shows.
Most of these driven, type-A personalities would benefit heavily from being able to relax and avoid burn-out. If they experiment with drugs that function as source of stress relief (and pot does that better than anything else!), they see their experiences as overwhelmingly positive. They project those positive experiences externally on the general population, to the extent that they are in urban population centers which have little contact with “ordinary” Americans (those who feel their lives offer little prospect for advancement or self-improvement).
So, like children out of wedlock, this becomes another example of how something that works well for elites can simultaneously become a disaster for the underclass. Middle/lower-class employees in America need the energy and drive to show up at miserable jobs and work long hours for meager wages. That’s something you get from caffeine or nicotine, not from THC. If they mellow themselves out, they become the proverbial pot-smoking ex-roommate on the couch who never holds the same job for more than a couple months, due to apathy and disinterest. So successful members of the working-class are disproportionately not pot-users, and perceive unsuccessful pot-smoking members of their circle of friends and family leeching off them. This is a totally different set of immediate social references than those urban elites ever get to experience.
Successful poor people in America self-medicate with coffee and tobacco, because it gets them out the door in the morning. Successful rich people in America self-medicate with marijuana, because it buffers them from stress-related mental illnesses that involve working 80 hours a week. But each class, if put on the other’s drug, would only self-destruct that much more rapidly.
Opponents of marijuana among the elites are those who have maintained enough contact with Middle America — David “Bobos in Paradise” Brooks has this all over his resume! — to realize that the experiences of elite urban Americans can’t be extended to all America without catalyzing a crisis of stoner lethargy.
If Hamilton is right, then the legalize-pot revolution will work out for the working class and the poor about as well as the sexual revolution has.