Hundreds of thousands of Americans get arrested for pot each year.
Wall Street Journal, February 5, 2009, p. A13.
Arrest Michael Phelps!
The sheriff's office in Richland County, S.C., is investigating a report -- prompted by a photo of the event published in a British tabloid -- that Olympic hero Michael Phelps smoked marijuana there. It's possible Mr. Phelps will be prosecuted. That's right: For those of you who don't know, marijuana is illegal.
I'm guessing it won't take much investigating to discover that Mr. Phelps used the drug at a University of South Carolina house party last November. After all, the 23-year-old swimming phenom -- whose feats in the pool and at meals have been promoted across the globe -- has publicly apologized for doing so, promising "my fans and the public it will not happen again."
And why wouldn't he apologize? Fat chance Mr. Phelps is about to become a drug policy reformer. He -- and his mom -- want to keep those endorsements rolling in. Imagine if all the prominent people who have ever been exposed for drug use argued for their decriminalization? There would be mayhem -- a lot of people might take drugs and no one would arrest them! The federal government's own surveys reveal that 40% of Americans have consumed marijuana, including the last three presidents of the United States.
The attitude of most Americans, Richland County's sheriff aside, is "Who cares?" After all, smoking pot didn't prevent Barack Obama from becoming president. And obviously, recreational marijuana use hasn't harmed Mr. Phelps, whose prodigious performances have garnered 14 gold medals, the most in Olympic history. If he can smoke pot and perform at such a superhuman level, then perhaps we should reconsider the effects of -- and punishments for -- use of the substance.
Today, not only is it illegal to smoke marijuana, but, most people are surprised to learn, the number of arrests for marijuana use and possession are increasing. In that bastion of liberal values and political views, New York City, close to 400,000 people were apprehended for marijuana misdemeanors in the decade ending in 2007. This was almost 10 times the number arrested in the previous decade. In 2007 alone, nearly 800,000 Americans were arrested for simple possession of marijuana, according to FBI statistics.
But, you're probably thinking, very few presidents, Olympic champions and college students are arrested for drug use. My daughter attends a prominent private university in the city, and she tells me many of her peers smoke pot. Yet neither she nor I had ever heard of a single arrest for this crime on campus.
Who are all of these people getting arrested? And what the heck's the matter with them? Don't they know how to get pot delivered 24/7 to their dorm via carriers from whom you order by cellphone?
Well, here's a hint: 83% of those arrested in New York City in the last decade were African-American or Latino. This occurred even though these groups, while underrepresented among college students, don't actually comprise the majority of drug users.
Then why are they the ones who are most often arrested?
It's complicated. Neighborhoods, social status, police activism, lingering racism, money and power, legal representation: It's a giant ball of wax.
Which gets us back to Michael Phelps and the sheriff of Richland County. What's amazing is not that he would prosecute a marijuana user -- this happens daily across the U.S. What's incredible is that the sheriff wants to apply the law equally, including to an Olympic god.
Next thing you know, he'll be suggesting that we imprison government officials who don't pay their taxes. Doesn't the man know how the world works?
Let me mention one thing I am grateful for: At least Mr. Phelps didn't claim he was addicted, enter the Betty Ford Center for 28 days, then emerge to do public service ads about his recovery. Now that would be hypocritical.