Few cultural transformations of the last generation are as striking as the reversal of public opinion toward marijuana. At the start of the Clinton administration, Americans opposed legal pot by a 4-to-1 margin; today, a majority of Americans support it, and at the beginning of this year, Colorado and Washington became the first states to introduce commercial markets in recreational weed.
This seismic shift has no doubt been motivated in part by a desire to ameliorate some of the worst failures of the drug war, such as racial bias in pot-related arrests and unconscionably high rates of incarceration for nonviolent offenders.
But these problems could also be addressed with modest reforms that stop well short of Colorado-style legalization. UCLA drug policy expert Mark Kleiman, for example, supports a “grow-your-own” marijuana regime that would decriminalize personal possession but prevent the emergence of “a legal cannabis industry working hard to produce as many chronic stoners as possible.”
The national march toward commercial cannabis is ultimately a symbol of the live-and-let-live cultural libertarianism that increasingly defines our political moment, and the Millennial generation in particular.
More than any other demographic, Millennials have led the surge in support for legal pot, coming out in force to approve the ballot measures in Colorado and Washington last year.
Millennials’ apparent preference for release over restraint extends into the sphere of sexual freedom as well — a YouGov poll found 45% of young voters support legalized prostitution, more than any other age group. The trend toward maximal individual liberty is also evident in the proliferation of commercial casinos in across the United States, especially in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast.
But young Americans are not Randian individualists. The impulse toward personal liberation and self-expression coexists with a pronounced confidence in government institutions.
Compared to Gen X’ers and Baby Boomers, Millennials are substantially less likely to favor a smaller government and more likely to favor strong social legislation, according to a detailed report by the Pew Research Center.
The liberal columnist Peter Beinart drew on these findings in a widely read Daily Beast essay, “The Rise of the New New Left,” which argued persuasively that young Americans will power a surge of Bill De Blasio-style left-wing economic populism.
The potential promise of the “liberaltarian” — that is culturally libertarian and economically liberal — Millennial worldview is clear enough: Religious moralism might lose some influence in public policy and government might provide more economic security for the poor and middle class.
But a society that blends cultural permisiveness with an activist government also presents certain perils. There is a tendency to believe that vices are more tolerable if they are government controlled: proponents of legal prostitution often tout the public health benefits of government-regulated sex work, just as proponents of legal pot and gambling point to the tax revenue that could be generated by the weed and casino industries.
These types of arguments persuaded the Swiss government set up publicly funded brothels, the government of Uruguay to construct a state-run marijuana monopoly, and a growing number of cash-starved U.S. states to introduce commercial casinos.
As the cultural critic James Poulos has suggested, it’s easy to imagine 21st century society drifting toward a point where everything is legal but everything is regulated, the state is seen as a “cool parent,” dispensing pleasures to its citizens, and the government accumulates more and more power without anyone feeling actually coerced.
Poulos provocatively describes this unsettling phenomenon as the “pink police state.” In a 2009 interview with The Atlantic, Poulos said, “citizens of a Pink Police State (I should say subjects) are apt to surrender more and more political liberty in exchange for more and more cultural or ‘personal’ license.
“And the government of a Pink Police State tends to monopolize and totalize administrative control while carving out a permissive playpen for the people.”
You don’t have to agree with this dystopian framing to see the potential hazards that could arise from a legalized marijuana industry.
Like the alcohol, gambling and tobacco industries, it would depend on the downscale and problem-users for the lion’s share of its business. America’s marketing geniuses might even manage to create a drug problem where none existed in the first place.
And insofar as state governments share in the pot windfall through heavy taxes (or by selling the drug directly, as in Uruguay) the revenues they earn are likely to be highly regressive.
Most people can smoke an occasional joint, take a few trips to Vegas, or even frequent a brothel without suffering any harm. But as David Frum has pointed out, “modern life is becoming steadily more dangerous for people prone to making bad choices.” The state-as-cool-parent model has a clear appeal, but it also poses clear dangers — especially to the most vulnerable citizens.
Contact Jason Willick at firstname.lastname@example.org