Politics & Policy

The New York Times‘ Great Doobie Freakout

Don’t hate Maureen Dowd; the whole paper’s gone reefer-mad.

Reporters dream of covering wars and murders, hurricanes and epidemics, sun-baked famines and bombings of foreign parliaments. Few j-school students hope to grow up and report on the intricacies of getting stoned. But that’s the reporter’s tragedy. Unlike the fiction writer, the journalist is generally confined to history as it really happens.

Our one tiny universe, which is just an atom in the fingernail of some giant being, is the one in which Colorado and Washington State have broadly decriminalized marijuana possession and commerce. And for a limited time we can witness the spectacle, equal parts prurient, hilarious, and dull, of some of the New York Times’ greatest names in a panic over the free market for cannabis.

As you might expect, it’s the free market part that scares the Grey Lady, not the cannabis part. Some of the Times’ name columnists — including groovetastic tripmaster David Brooks and gentle flower child Maureen Dowd — have been busily recounting their harrowing personal experiences with “M” or “The Chronic” (as marijuana-eaters refer to this rare substance in their drug-taking “dens”).

But what’s driven the Times off the deep end is seeing an intoxicant that was until January used solely by jazz musicians and zoot suiters become available — for purchase, sale, or usage — to any slob in a smelly T-shirt.

“Despite the potential, many investors are still hesitating at spending the money that might make joints and brownies less ad hoc, more corporate,” economics reporter Annie Lowrey laments in a Times Magazine piece on the “Bud Light-ification of bud.” Lowrey makes a very odd argument: that the six-month-old industry is hamstrung by lack of standardization. Now it’s possible that some auto-industry reporter might have made that case back before Henry Ford decided what color to paint the Model T; but best practices and smoothing out of “inefficiencies” are results of a free market operating over time, not obstacles to consumer happiness. In fact, standards emerge because they please a profitable mass of consumers.

In the process of analyzing this newly deregulated market, Lowrey discovers how government interference stunts the creation of private wealth. It’s an insight the Times could usefully apply in every other market it covers:

Why spend $20 million on a grow site that might be shut down, or a new brand that might get stamped out by the next administration’s Justice Department? A surfeit of laws — and confusion between them — is holding the market back.

“It’s a little bit like Alice in Wonderland,” said [Peter] Adams, of Rockies Venture Club. “All the rules of physics are broken, and you’re trying to figure your way through a strange place.”

Clearly if the rules of physics are broken, we’re going to need a program at least the size of the Manhattan Project. For how could a private market, nakedly servicing the bottom line, have produced 24-hour mattress delivery, 27 flavors of Pop-Tarts, and digital photography? Such innovations could only have been generated by the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Food and Drug Administration, and the space program, respectively. (Also, a “surfeit” implies more than two, so the confusion is “among” the laws, not “between” them.)

Even in an area where we might expect the elimination of laws to be followed by suffering — potential increases in crimes, including pot-related accidents — America’s Newspaper of Record has nodded off in front of life’s rich television.

Colorado has reported no increase in crime, and Denver has reported a decrease. But Jack Healy of the Times works the numbers with all the skill of a barnyard stoner carving a bowl out of an apple. Healy’s story “After 5 Months of Sales, Colorado Sees the Downside of a Legal High” opens with a trio of anecdotes about antisocial behavior in the Centennial State (population 5.2 million). But only one of those anecdotes pans out, and all the statistics he can gather point to falling crime rates.

In Healy’s defense, crime waves are as interesting as a BSG marathon and a cabinet full of chips, while increases in law and order are boring. He honorably lets the body of the story refute the headline and lede.

Not so with celebrated columnist Maureen Dowd, the police officer’s daughter who managed to turn Washington on its ear in the era of George H. W. Bush and has ever since been disinclined to change up her style. Her recent column, bearing the witless headline “Don’t Harsh Our Mellow, Dude,” shows why that was probably a wise choice.

“The caramel-chocolate flavored candy bar looked so innocent, like the Sky Bars I used to love as a child,” Dowd writes. “Sitting in my hotel room in Denver, I nibbled off the end and then, when nothing happened, nibbled some more. I figured if I was reporting on the social revolution rocking Colorado in January, the giddy culmination of pot Prohibition, I should try a taste of legal, edible pot from a local shop.”

It’s an empathetic exercise to try and feel umbrage on another’s behalf, and in this case I choose to be outraged on behalf of the people of Denver. Denver’s a great town, the home of Molly Brown, a growing, highly educated city of entrepreneurs and Super Bowl champions. And when Maureen Dowd finally gets off her rocker and lands in the Mile High City, she chooses to get stoned all alone in a hotel room? (Handy tip, Maureen: The Airport Days Inn has suites starting at $104.)

#page#Dowd goes on:

For an hour, I felt nothing. I figured I’d order dinner from room service and return to my more mundane drugs of choice, chardonnay and mediocre-movies-on-demand.

But then I felt a scary shudder go through my body and brain. I barely made it from the desk to the bed, where I lay curled up in a hallucinatory state for the next eight hours. I was thirsty but couldn’t move to get water. Or even turn off the lights. I was panting and paranoid, sure that when the room-service waiter knocked and I didn’t answer, he’d call the police and have me arrested for being unable to handle my candy.

I strained to remember where I was or even what I was wearing, touching my green corduroy jeans and staring at the exposed-brick wall. As my paranoia deepened, I became convinced that I had died and no one was telling me.

The kindest thing we can do is to pass over this column without comment. So I’ll just leave behind two pieces of advice. 1) Come out and join the party; nobody will judge your green corduroy jeans.  2) I’m pretty certain even Dr. Henry Jekyll did not drink down his entire batch of serum the first time out.

Dowd did not invent the Times pot confessional. David Brooks sired the genre in January, with his column “Weed: Been There. Done That.”

“I smoked one day during lunch and then had to give a presentation in English class,” Brooks recalls. “I stumbled through it, incapable of putting together simple phrases, feeling like a total loser. It is still one of those embarrassing memories that pop up unbidden at 4 in the morning.”

This strikes me as the truest passage anywhere in the Times’​ coverage of two states’ experiment with legal marijuana. It’s easy enough to imagine David Brooks boring a roomful of people with his meaningless ramblings. But at a deeper level, the sense of enduring shame, the horror of being exposed, express a truth about why a segment of the population just doesn’t enjoy pot.

Those people remain free to pursue happiness in a regime of legal marijuana. The change is that stoners will also be free to follow their bliss. There are many varieties of recreational drug users, and these folks in turn will be better served by the variety of strains that have already been brought to market under the regimes of medical fiction in California and other states, and that will only become better tuned to customer satisfaction in a more free market. It’s tempting to say that what’s troubling the Times is the sense that this story was already broken by the Onion in the nineties: “Marijuana Linked to Sitting Around and Getting High.”

But there’s a darker menace in what legal weed represents. As a cohort, Times journalists are troubled by a world where there’s nobody to tell them what to do. After blaming her Maryjane Phreakout on the lack of labeling on cannabis candy, Dowd interviews one of Colorado’s newly minted apparatchiks, the state’s “director of marijuana coordination.” (Who, by the way, utters what may be the most clearly false statement ever published in the New York Times: “With liquor, people understand what they’re getting themselves into.”)

It’s not the drug that’s scary for the New York Times. It’s the lack of coordination: the idea of a state, even a country, where nobody is ensuring the market delivers pre-determined outcomes; where hotel staff can’t advise you on matters of psychotropic diet; where teachers don’t tell you when to stop talking.

Tim Cavanaugh is news editor of National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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