I Don’t Want to Smell You Get High

I’m glad that draconian anti-marijuana laws have disappeared. But we need a taboo against public consumption.

Picture of a person smoking a weed pipe.
Donald Weber / Getty

Imagine you’re in the heart of New York City—for example, on the steps of Madison Square Garden. One of the very first things you would notice there, no matter the time of day or the weather, would be the pungent aroma of burning reefer. This would also be the case if you found yourself at the entrance to the Q train at Union Square, or at a chessboard in Washington Square Park, or under some scaffolding erected on any random block in SoHo. Smelling cannabis has become an inescapable feature of living in (or visiting) the city, an emblem of life in New York akin to sipping a crème at a café table in Paris or strolling through Rome eating a gelato. In some parts of Midtown, weed aromas pump through the streets like those bizarre plumes of steam that blow continuously from orange-striped tubes at intersections.

Not so long ago, the United States took a draconian approach to marijuana. As recently as 2017, New York City alone recorded more than 18,000 arrests for weed possession, down from a peak of more than 50,000 in 2011. Some 93 percent of those 2017 arrests were for possession in public view or public consumption. In 2021, New York State approved legislation to legalize recreational marijuana, and adults may now smoke it wherever they can smoke tobacco. By the end of 2022, the grand total of marijuana arrests and summonses—in this city of 8.5 million inhabitants—had fallen to 179. It is an unmistakably good thing that New York, along with much of American society, has abandoned the puritanical War on Drugs absolutism that sought to prevent otherwise law-abiding adults from ever getting high on pain of criminal prosecution. Anti-marijuana laws from a previous, stricter era were not only hypocritical and ineffective—everyone who wanted to smoke weed could still do so; they were enforced to an extremely unequal measure, falling much harder on Black and Latino citizens. The old regime was clearly unsustainable.

But too much of a good thing can pose an entirely new set of problems, and two competing truths often exist simultaneously. The computer scientists Dylan Hadfield-Menell and Simon Zhuang argue that optimizing the pursuit of any given goal will lead to unanticipated consequences, including the achievement of ends that are antithetical to the original objective. In a recent podcast, the physicist Max Tegmark provided a concrete example of this idea. Pretend you’ve programmed a car to drive from Boston to New York City by telling it to go as southward as physically possible. Eventually, it will arrive in Manhattan, but without any further steps to redirect or halt its movement, it will inevitably keep going all the way to Florida. Tegmark says that the principle can be applied to the development of artificial intelligence. It can also help make sense of why I can’t step outside without smelling marijuana.

The desire to correct past wrongs hasn’t just resulted in marijuana smoking becoming permissible in most areas where tobacco smoking is allowed. Because of a larger disinclination toward any punitiveness at all, blunt-smoking can now be observed even where cigarettes are considered inappropriate or offensive. Police aren’t enforcing the law where it still holds. It is progress that people are no longer facing jail time for personal weed possession; it does not follow, however, that Americans should accept a total erosion of the etiquette around public consumption in shared and non-designated spaces. The car has traveled way past New York City and is on a ferry to Patagonia.

Several months ago, coming into New York City from the liberal-arts college in the Hudson Valley where I teach—where, for what it’s worth, I have never seen anyone openly smoking—I complained offhandedly on Twitter about the omnipresent aroma of cannabis. This wasn’t even an original observation. In 2018, as the city was still in the early stages of shifting its drug policy, Ginia Bellafante wrote in The New York Times that marijuana is the “signature olfactory experience of New York.” And last year, the mayor, Eric Adams, joked at a press conference, “The No. 1 thing I smell right now is pot. It’s like everybody’s smoking a joint now.”

I received a huge amount of pushback for my remark (in addition to quite a lot of agreement), much of it premised on the idea that any social response to public weed smell would inevitably result in the warehousing of Black and brown bodies. In fact, I don’t want the police to put public weed-smokers in jail. I simply think New Yorkers should do a better job of policing themselves: a middle ground in which smokers of any color exercise discretion where the law employs restraint.

The pushback against my complaint is ongoing. Last week, in the libertarian magazine Reason, Liz Wolfe published an article titled “New York City Should Have Always Smelled Like Pot,” in which she opens with a rebuttal of my tweet. Hers is about the most compelling argument I’ve seen in favor of the new normal, and to her credit, she declines to partake in the customary gaslighting that would deny that a change has occurred in the first place. “The smell of weed in the streets,” Wolfe argues, “is a sign of progress and tolerance, not decline.”

Tolerance is a wonderful value in principle. And as the intolerant have long understood, it is also a value that can be easily exploited. It works best when buttressed by agreed-upon standards and a common investment in informal norms. “Some of today’s stoners do have a bit too much chutzpah,” Wolfe concedes, “like the guy I saw on the G train rolling a joint at 9 a.m. on an especially packed train car.” That experience rings familiar. On a recent Monday morning, I boarded an overflowing L train from Williamsburg into Manhattan, the entire car reeking of freshly puffed ganja. Progress demands that elderly people and small children must also inhale this? Something is perversely unserious about a culture that insists the answer is yes and that you are some kind of “Karen” if you beg to differ.

“Fellow New Yorkers who have long tolerated cigarette smoke clogging up the public airways,” Wolfe writes, “should offer the same grace to weed.” But cigarette smokers haven’t had their way for two decades now, and anyone who would dare light a Marlboro on the subway today would receive the most withering glare—and possibly risk physical assault—because we now have not only laws but also real taboos around the spreading of secondhand smoke. Which is one reason you barely smell cigarettes at all, even in the streets, parks, and plazas where the scent of weed prevails.

The reflex to dismiss any criticism of violations against communal consideration exemplifies an evolving progressive politics, what the writer Michael Shellenberger has referred to as an ethos of “left-libertarianism.” In ways large and small, it has degraded urban spaces. In the absence of wider unspoken controls, the anything-goes mentality flirts with pandemonium. Turned up to a certain pitch, it produces something much worse than a public nuisance: It encourages self-reinforcing disorder. Look at San Francisco or Portland, Oregon, where tent encampments and open hard-drug use have in some districts made healthy and productive activity all but impossible. New York is by no means at a West Coast level of decline, but such states of decay are not binary. They operate along a dismal continuum, and public spaces forfeit structure by gradation. Broken windows left untended really do tell larger stories.

When is the last time you’ve seen someone pounding shots of vodka on the subway? You haven’t, and for good reason. Drug possession was once a crime as well as a taboo. Now that we’ve optimized the admirable goal of ensuring that it isn’t the former, we need a redirect to preserve the latter.