The Economic Sociology of Getting #*&ing Toasted in Colorado

By Graham Peterson

Thank Christ in the Heavens, weed is now completely legal in Colorado. On New Year’s day, unredeemable deviants from all over the state lined up in orderly fashion, peacefully purchased their pot, and went home to smoke it. They even obeyed  the remaining injunction against smoking in public, instead of celebrating in the streets like hippies like to do.

David Brooks is still worried. Proffering no evidence better than freshman economics, he warns that legalizing weed will lower production costs, which will invite new competition. Competition will bid down prices, and as sure as a bong will turn water brown, lower prices will increase consumption. “This is simple economics, and it is confirmed by much research,” says Brooks. That’s bad, he says, because David Brooks couldn’t handle his buzz during a high-school presentation once, and he still feels bad about that.

Quite apart from whether to make public policy based on David Brooks’ sniggering teenage high jinx, there are serious problems with his social science.

Statements like “this is simple economics,” usually obviate that actually, “this is simple sociology.” Brooks is absolutely right about the economics. But the economics assumes agents with fixed preferences. Now that’s a powerful assumption that predicts a lot of behavior, because indeed, our preferences are pretty stable, day on day. But when the tectonic plates in cultures shift, as during a drug prohibition vote, economics is a less useful tool.

Brooks does understand the sociological dimension some. He addresses it in saying that, “laws profoundly mold culture.” That point is often under-appreciated, and we should appreciate Brooks making it. People like to say that we shouldn’t legislate morality. But morality is more than half of the action in any law. A law conveys to person A, that people B through Z, also believe in that law. Person A thus feels compelled to follow it when The Law isn’t looking.

Brooks is right about how laws work; he’s just got his prediction backwards. The law will change, weed will become more socially acceptable, and that’s precisely why consumption will fall. Lots of weed heads are out smoking pot right now to stick it to their parents, to their teachers, and to other authorities. In the Netherlands, where weed has been legal since the 1970s, teenagers consume somewhere between half and a third of the amount that American teenagers do. As its minister of health has said, “we succeeded in making pot boring.”

Advocates for legal weed haven’t forgotten about America’s children. They are behind the policy most likely to keep children away from drugs. And even in the (imaginary) case that legal weed did boost use for kids, it is a strange ethics to trade off the demolition of the black and brown community, for keeping a handful of white kids from getting high before chemistry.

Drug law reform advocates have been making these points for a very long time. Among other whoopsies, drug laws have come down hardest on black and brown people, and they have increased use for kids. The data are in. We have confident predictions from sociology and economics to know what legalization will look like. It’s time to legislate us some morality in a defensible direction, and end the war on drugs. Even a growing number of police, judges, and DAs agree.

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