White: An American hero helps again

It’s high time for someone to thank Michael Phelps for taking that bong hit. Not because we should lionize a guy who racked up 14 gold medals to go with his 2004 DUI and his highly public incident of marijuana use — all before age 24! — but because Phelps’ adolescent antics have somehow spawned an adult discussion about drug policy in America.

Since images of Phelps’ bout with reefer madness hit the Internet on Jan. 31, we’ve seen the predictable reactions from the “Just say no” folks who wish America were more like kindergarten. Sportswriter Michael Wilbon rushed to condemn Phelps for “doing something so stupid.” Kellogg’s announced it wouldn’t renew his endorsement because “Michael’s recent behavior is not consistent with the image of Kellogg.” USA Swimming suspended Phelps for three months. No doubt he heard the message loud and clear: Sit in time-out and think about what you did. And no more sugary cereal.

Others, though, took the time to think about what, exactly, Phelps had done. And in the past few weeks, a number of smart people have actively pushed the idea that marijuana use maybe isn’t so bad. That it certainly isn’t as bad as overcrowded prisons, horrific violence and spiraling deficits. That maybe an intelligent drug policy could play a role in solving our more serious problems.

Libertarian lawyer and author David Kopel praised President Obama for vowing to end raids on providers of medical marijuana in California and elsewhere. (Memo to Obama: Go ahead and make good on that promise by replacing the Bush cronies who are still running your Drug Enforcement Agency.) The Monday edition of The Wall Street Journal featured an op-ed from three former Latin American presidents who stated unequivocally, “The war on drugs has failed.”

Writing for the Web site The Big Money, reporter Jeff Segal suggested that legalizing marijuana might provide California with some much-needed revenue. A few days ago, a Democratic legislator from San Francisco introduced a bill that he claims will provide $13 billion in tax revenue by legalizing California’s largest cash crop. Though the proposed tax is so draconian that it would probably do little to alleviate the black market that exists now, the mere existence of such a proposal indicates that we aren’t in Kansas anymore.

The current recession might be the best thing to happen to legalization advocates in years. For decades, marijuana advocacy groups have tried to frame the debate as one about individual liberty. They’ve pointed out that alcohol and tobacco — highly addictive substances that kill hundreds of thousands of Americans every year — are perfectly legal. They’ve presented evidence that the War on Drugs exacts grievous human costs in countries like Mexico, Colombia and Afghanistan. The United States has, by and large, ignored them. Now the stoners get to hit Americans right in the pocketbooks.

Critics of the stimulus package have analogized it to paying one guy $100 to dig a hole and another guy $100 to fill it in. You’ve spent $200, they say, and you’ve still got a patch of dirt. Isn’t that what our prisons do to non-violent drug offenders?

We spend inordinate amounts of money building prisons and paying guards in order to take away the freedom of people whose only crime involved ingesting chemicals that the government says are bad. Along the way, we turn unlucky (mostly black and Hispanic) kids into real criminals by forcing them into close quarters with the gangs that basically run our unconscionably overcrowded prisons and by labeling them felons when they get out. And Bobby Jindal is worried about volcano monitoring?

Stats whiz Nate Silver, creator of fivethirtyeight.com, estimated that public pressure would lead to the legalization of marijuana in this country by 2022 or 2023. It could happen a whole lot sooner if Americans wake up and realize that they’d rather collect tax revenues from every joint that gets smoked instead of subsidizing prison meals and prison violence for a bunch of poor kids who got caught on the wrong street corner at the wrong time.

Xan White is a senior in Pierson College.


  • LA Medical User

    Well done! You have clearly done your research and this article covers most of the many good reasons to "legalize it."

    I am a recent Yale grad and Medical Marijuana Patient under CA prop 215. I use cannabis to alleviate nausea related to IBS and ulcers. I also use marijuana for recreation. The system in LA works well and…makes money! The dispensaries are packed each night and can bring in up to 10 grand a day. They are quite safe and foster a sense of community between patients. It is a great system.

    Since the Phelps photo, I too have noticed the Marijuana debate rising to prominance in the media and in national forums. The sheer idiocy of the Phelps media frenzy, the increasing violence related to mexican drug cartels, a crumbling economy and a money sucking prison and law enforcement system are finally causing Americans, even those who do not partake, to wake up and realize the astounding inefficiencies of prohibition.

    In an unrelated note, I was a swimmer at Yale and swam against Phelps many times between the ages of 10-15. He really isn't a nice guy and was quite aloof, even before making his first olympics. He's also kind of a nincompoop (anyone watch SNL?) and always struck me as immature and unintelligent. I would always stories at swim camps and meets from the "cool kids" who had "hung out and got stoned with Phelps at Nationals last summer," so the bong photo was no surprise. I just wish he was kind of a cooler guy before I make him my marijuana posterchild hero. He has done a lot for the movement, albeit unwittingly.

  • Lana

    Please stop lying anonymously and unregistered just to prove a point (read: GOSSIP and RUMOR-STARTING). It shows clearly what you're doing, "LA Medical User"