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.