Pot legalization raises age-old question of why we 'stupefy' ourselves

  • Article by: JOHN M. CRISP
  • Updated: January 8, 2014 - 10:01 AM

Instead of Tolstoy-style ‘stupefaction,’ Americans should try moderation — for once.

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Colorado took an extraordinary step when, on Jan. 1, it implemented a law that legalizes the sale of marijuana for recreational use. The state of Washington isn’t far behind, and it’s likely that if these experiments play out reasonably well, other states will legalize pot, too.

In fact, the Washington Post reports that proponents for legalization have collected enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot this year in Alaska, and they have hopes for Oregon next year and six more states by 2016.

At least 18 pot shops were open in Denver on Jan. 1, selling up to an ounce of marijuana to Colorado residents over 21. Out-of-state customers are limited to a quarter of an ounce.

Dozens of additional stores are expected to open in coming months, and officials are anticipating that marijuana sales could add up to $200 million to Colorado’s economy, as well as produce close to $70 million in tax revenue.

The trend is probably inevitable, but I’ll admit to misgivings.

Consider the role and uses of “stupefaction” in our culture. The term is quaint, but I use it in connection with the Russian writer Count Leo Tolstoy, the author of very big books like “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina.” After a dissolute youth and a long, productive life, Tolstoy adopted a radical version of Christianity and a rigid asceticism that resulted in 1890 in a short essay that asks a poignant question: “Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves?”

Tolstoy laments the excessive use of drugs in late 19-century Russia, substances such as vodka, wine, beer, hashish, opium, morphine and even tobacco. Tolstoy’s definition of a stupefacient was anything that dulled the mind enough to make it lose sight of its conscience.

It doesn’t take much: Tolstoy implies that the fictional murderer of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” Raskolnikov, was pushed over the edge by as little as a glass of beer and a cigarette. In fact, he speculates that the work of philosopher Immanuel Kant wouldn’t have been written in such a “bad style” if Kant hadn’t smoked so many cigarettes.

It’s interesting to consider what Tolstoy would have thought of our culture’s insatiable attraction to stupefaction, which we achieve in all sorts of ways — alcohol and illegal drugs, of course, but also plenty of legal drugs, food, TV, consumerism, and enormous amounts of electronic entertainment, diversion and distraction — more than enough to keep our consciences at bay, as well as the realities of the bad things that happen in the world.

In fact, Tolstoy might have thought that a few cigarettes and a glass of beer are preferable to the stupefaction of the modern potbellied, middle-age American man who watches three football games on Saturday, two on Sunday, one on Monday, one on Thursday and maybe one on Friday, as well.

Tolstoy’s answer is total abstinence, a bar that is probably too high in a land where stupefaction, in all its forms and degrees, has become a synonym for pleasure. Besides, stupefaction in moderation is fun — it feels good! — and few of us would want to return to the pleasure-denying Puritanism prominent at the beginnings of our country.

Unfortunately, humans — and, maybe, especially Americans — don’t have much genius for moderation, and nearly all stupefacients — from cocaine to video games — are somewhat addictive.

Certainly, Colorado and Washington deserve credit for doing away with some of the irony and hypocrisy in our attitude toward marijuana, which accepts and even admires its admitted use by celebrities (Bill Maher, Willie Nelson, Cheech and Chong) and presidents (Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, in their prior lives), while running up the world’s highest incarceration rate by the disproportionate prosecution of minorities.

But the challenge for citizens in both states will be avoiding self-indulgence and achieving a level of moderation that enhances, rather than diminishes, their lives. Unfortunately, we’ve never been very good at balancing abstinence against obsessive stupefaction. But, please, Colorado, do your best.

 

John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. This article was distributed by MCT Information Services.

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