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Phelps scandal is reefer madness

Ben Linskey | Thursday, February 19, 2009

In 2004, Michael Phelps was arrested for drunk driving. He struck a plea bargain, served 18 months’ probation, and was able to move on with minimal damage to his athletic career. Phelps bounced back from the controversy in the most impressive manner imaginable, winning a record eight gold medals in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and returning home as a national hero. A few weeks ago, however, the star swimmer once again found himself under scrutiny after a photograph surfaced showing him using a bong at a party in South Carolina. This time, Phelps did not escape unscathed. USA Swimming issued him a three-month suspension, the Kellogg Company dropped him as a spokesman, and the Richland County, South Carolina, Sheriff’s Department arrested eight individuals who were at the party with Phelps, though the swimmer himself will not face charges.

Some commentators have been quick to denounce Phelps’s behavior, but it’s worth taking a step back to consider the situation. Every year, well over 10,000 Americans are killed in alcohol-related accidents, yet Phelps escaped his drunken driving conviction with a measly $250 fine, no jail time, and the public’s forgiveness. Marijuana, in contrast, is relatively harmless, but Phelps has faced widespread scorn for his use of the drug. There is clearly a sort of peculiar logic at work here. Phelps’s actions are being judged not on the basis of any objective moral criteria, but rather on an arbitrary standard set by the federal government. Rather than castigate one of our country’s greatest athletes for engaging in an activity tried by Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Sarah Palin, Clarence Thomas, and roughly 70 million other Americans, we should ask ourselves why we continue to harass peaceful citizens for making the private and harmless decision to smoke pot.

The so-called “war on drugs” is one of the most misguided and pernicious endeavors ever undertaken by the federal government. For decades, the U.S. has devoted billions of dollars to a futile and destructive effort to eliminate the production, sale, and use of a variety of substances which it deems insalubrious. While failing to fulfill its stated objectives, the war on drugs has brought about the deaths of innocent Americans, drained the U.S. treasury, eroded Constitutional checks on the federal government’s powers, blocked patients’ access to valuable medical treatments, catalyzed the militarization of domestic police forces, and created a black market that keeps violent criminals in business.

Serious discussion of our nation’s drug laws remains all too rare, but in recent years, notable thinkers from across the political spectrum have begun to acknowledge the failure of the drug war. The late conservative icon William F. Buckley and his magazine, National Review, were consistent supporters of drug legalization, and even President Obama has indicated that he supports some reform of drug laws, though he has yet to end the federal government’s unconstitutional raids on medical marijuana dispensaries authorized by state laws. The notion that drug use is a major source of crime and social decay in the United States has been thoroughly discredited. A candid review of the history of drug use in this country reveals that even so-called “hard drugs” were once legal and produced few ill social effects. Marijuana, in particular, is not addictive and has not been shown to cause any serious health problems.

Drug prohibition has created a black market, resulting in the emergence of organized crime and violence. In their efforts to combat drug use and distribution, local police have adopted increasingly deadly equipment and tactics, all too frequently leading to the deaths of innocent bystanders and persons wrongly targeted in drug raids. Furthermore, the federal war on drugs blatantly violates the U.S. Constitution, which grants the federal government no authority to prosecute the use and intrastate sale of drugs. The Department of Justice has gone so far as to attempt to wholly override state laws, refusing to allow states to legalize the use of marijuana for medical purposes. As Justice Clarence Thomas warned in his dissenting opinion in Gonzales v. Raich, the federal government’s prosecution of the war on drugs threatens to dissolve the Constitution’s most basic checks on federal power.

The most basic problem with drug prohibition, though, is that it represents an attempt to suppress peaceful, harmless behavior through the coercive apparatus of the state. Government exists to protect our individual rights, not to protect us from ourselves or to tell us how to run our lives. You may find marijuana use distasteful, but you have no right to dictate to your neighbor what he may do within the confines of his home. Alcohol use frequently leads to deadly traffic accidents, addiction, serious health problems, and broken families, yet the state still recognizes our fundamental right to consume alcohol in a responsible manner, provided that we do not harm others as a result. Why, then, should marijuana, a far less dangerous drug, be illegal? Michael Phelps’s predicament serves as a potent reminder of the destructive consequences of our nation’s senseless drug policies.

We don’t have to sit silently and watch the drug war continue to wreck havoc on the lives of innocent citizens. We should hold President Obama accountable to his promise to end federal raids on medical marijuana dispensaries and ask Congress to begin reforming federal drug laws. And the next time you feel like a bowl of Corn Flakes, remember that the Kellogg Company decided to drag Michael Phelps’s name through the mud rather than take a stand against unjust laws. Cheerios might suddenly sound a bit more appetizing.

Ben Linskey, a sophomore majoring in political science and philosophy, is co-president of the College Libertarians. The most powerful drug he has ever used is caffeine. He can be contacted at blinskey@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.