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Noam Chomsky

Questioner: There was a recent article written by Alexander Cockburn in which he wondered if prohibition was 100% bad. In it, he mentioned that there were some public health benefits [to prohibiting alcohol]. I was wondering if you think that’s irrelevant, or–

Noam Chomsky: Well prohibition cut down on the use of alcohol, and alcohol’s very destructive. I mean it’s much worse than marijuana.

Questioner: So then do you think marijuana or other drugs should be legalized?

Noam Chomsky: I don’t think there’s an obvious answer. I think these are things you have to be cautious about and experiment with. So take, say, marijuana: I think there’s a reasonably good case for decriminalization…

Last time I saw figures – five or ten years ago – they were listed as 60 million marijuana users, with no overdoses. That’s not too bad a record. It’s certainly not good for you beyond some very limited use. But the same is true of everything. It’s true of coffee; it’s true of tobacco; it’s true of red meat.

But overwhelmingly in these instances the right answer is education. Edifying the populace. I think that’s just obvious. Tobacco is a very striking case in the United States.

[Points to questioner] I suspect that not many of your friends smoke cigarettes.

I haven’t seen a student come into my office wanting to smoke for twenty years. It’s just not done among wealthy, educated people anymore. It’s still prevalent among older people who didn’t shake the habit, and it’s very common among younger people who are poor…

Tobacco use in the U.S. became very sharply class-based, just on the basis of education.

And the same has been true of other things. So take, say, red meat. There’s no criminalization of red meat, but consumption is going way down among most groups, simply because of education – people learning some about the potentially harmful effects of it.

And I think that’s true of everything. Take, say, the lottery.

The lottery is a highly regressive tax… You take the towns in Massachusetts, and you ask how much money people spend on the state lottery: the answer is predictable based on levels of education and income. The lower the education and income, the more they spend on the lottery.

I mean, in the town where I live nobody would waste a cent on the lottery. It’s like giving your money away; that’s what the state lottery is. But poor and uneducated people do it.

So what it amounts to is a highly regressive tax. That’s why there’s a ton of advertising for it — it’s a terrific way to soak the poor.

Well, should you make it illegal? Well… I don’t think it should be legal to advertise it, frankly, any more than you should allow ads for marijuana on television. But I don’t think you should criminalize it, either.

What I think you ought to do is exactly what’s done in every sector of educated people: get people immediately to understand that you’re throwing your money away, that this isn’t good for you. If you want to throw your money away, throw it in the ocean.

When people understand that, there’s not going to be any lottery anymore. And I think the same is true of every way of harming yourself…

If there are people who want to experience or do this stuff, alright, well they ought to be allowed to do it. On the other hand, it should be a rational decision – something that people are in a position to make a reasonable choice about. And that requires understanding, and education, and recognition of the consequences, and so on.

I mean, that’s ultimately the answer to drugs.


I’ve transcribed these comments from a press conference with Chomsky that took place on March 4th, 1997. Watch this section below.

In the summer of 2008, I sent the following email to Noam, with whom I’ve communicated pretty regularly since I was 14. (His answers are bolded.)

Sent: Friday, July 04, 2008 10:40 PM

Dear professor Chomsky,

1. What do you do or ponder during independence day? What do you think about the idea that we should adhere to morality over country?

A day like all others. Morality should come first. That’s even written into the law (following illegal orders, etc.). Of course, general principles like these cannot be absolutes. One can always conceive of exceptions. 

2. Do you think marijuana’s tendency to inspire subversive attitudes would be another reason for government opposition to it? Do you think it will be decriminalized?

I don’t think marijuana inspires subserve attitudes. Rather, passivity. Government opposition has a long history. Like prohibition generally, it’s been contrived to control “the dangerous classes.” Some day I presume it will be decriminalized, as it becomes a norm for the educated and privileged classes. 

3. Have you ever tried marijuana? If not, why not?

Never tried, never was tempted. Just not how I live my life.

A few years later, in the Spring of 2010, I asked him the following as part of a larger discussion:

3. I know it’s a personal question but I am interested in the answer: do you, or did you ever, smoke tobacco or drink alcohol?

I did smoke a pipe a long time ago. I often take a drink in the evening.

Looking at it now, I like that answer about the pipe. It, like the phrase “take a drink,” strikes my ear with the tenor of a certain generation of mid-20th century academicians — a group which is sadly dwindling in number.

Someday I plan on publishing the rest of my exchange with Noam, barring he tells me I shouldn’t. All in all, it’s a staccato conversation stitched together over hundreds of emails traversing nearly every subject matter about which I’ve ever been curious. In retrospect, it’s one of the most valuable mentorships I’ve had, despite the fact we’ve never met.

Below: NC in his pipe-smoking days.

Young Noam Chomsky

As a short postscript to those words on Chomsky, I think it’s worth linking to a recent interview with Norman Finkelstein which was published last week on Znet. Though Finkelstein isn’t my favorite source, he nevertheless is spot on in this description of why Chomsky is so admirable.

You’ve mentioned Professor Chomsky a few times in this interview — a man I intend to interview in the future. I know he’s been a good friend of yours for many years. What do you most admire about him?

Everyone admires his brilliance but that’s a commonplace. And also, that’s the throw of the dice, God was very generous to him when it came to his mental capacity. Though of course… Professor Chomsky is a perpetual motion machine. He is an indefatigable worker. But that’s not what I admire most about him, that as I said is discipline which of course I respect, the throw of the dice which is fortune.

The thing that I admire most about Professor Chomsky is he is an absolutely faithful person, he will never betray you. He’s constitutionally incapable of betrayal. To the point that he will defend friends even though I think he knows they’re wrong, but he won’t ever betray you. And he has a sense of moral responsibility that’s just kind of breathtaking…

Check out more from Chomsky, this time talking about some more personal matters, in the link below:

Noam ChomskyChomsky on Education, Children, and the Value of Work