I Was Gonna Legalize Pot, but Then I Had Kids


Writing in Friday's New York Times, Michael Winerip highlights one of the main reasons drug policy reform did not move as quickly as might have been expected after pot-smoking baby boomers (such as our last three presidents) became politicians: They also became parents. After noting that public support for marijuana decriminalization (or even outright legalization) seems to be growing, Winerip offers a caveat:

The 20-something me believes marijuana could be legalized, regulated and taxed like alcohol, providing much needed revenue.

But the 50-something me, the parent of three boys and a girl, ages 14 to 21, is not so sure. The 50-something me—who hasn't smoked in more than 20 years—knows stories in our little suburb about classmates of my kids smoking pot in middle school, using heroin in college, going into rehab, relapsing, trying again. The 50-something me has seen the eyes of those boomer parents—good people—seen the weariness and fear, and thought, "There but for the grace of God. …"

I think Winerip's discomfort accurately reflects the feelings of many baby-boomer parents who, even if they continue to believe that their own youthful pot smoking was no big deal, are nevertheless alarmed when they see their offspring engage in the same behavior. As I've said before, the official warnings that today's marijuana is a different drug because it's so much stronger than what people smoked in the 1960s and '70s are best understood as a way of legitimizing this emotional reaction, which is a perfectly natural one (and not just when it comes to drug use). Yet the fact that parental anxieties are natural does not make them logical.

Winerip acknowledges that the vast majority of pot smokers turn out fine but worries that making marijuana more readily available will result in more heroin addicts, since people who smoke marijuana (especially at a young age) are more likely to use other drugs. Like other advocates of the "gateway drug" hypothesis, he conflates correlation with causation. It may simply be that people who ultimately try heroin (only a minority of whom become heavy users) tend to try other drugs first, and that the sort of people who are inclined to like heroin are also inclined to use drugs at an early age. Furthermore, it seems likely that the association between pot use and heroin use is at least partly a product of prohibition, which throws both drugs together in the same black market, in which case the link would be weaker if marijuana were legalized.

Not all parents of adolescents support the war on drugs, of course. Winerip's article opens with comments from Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, who reports that his daughter, now 20, grew up understanding that smoking pot does not make you a screw-up or a bad person. One of my daughters recently turned 16, and I have yet to recant my views about the evils of prohibition. Clearly, then, it's possible to move beyond the sort of fear-inciting anecdotes on which Winerip relies to ask whether the experience of smoking marijuana in itself increases the risk of becoming a heroin addict—not to mention considering all of the other relevant effects of repealing marijuana prohibition, only some of which have to do with the welfare of Winerip's children.