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Monday, February 16, 2009

Crimes of Olympic Proportion

Ken Kerr Bio

Readers of this column know that I am no fan of Michael Phelps (Gold Medal Platitudes, Aug 25, 2008). His post-gold-medal interviews where he droned that anybody-can-achieve-anything-if-they-WANT-it-badly-enough sent an irresponsible and discouraging message to the average athletically-mediocre, intellectually unimpressive American. And then the UK-based "News of the World" published a picture of Phelps doing bong hits at a University of South Carolina party. Imagine! A college-age kid smoking pot at a college party. Scandalous? Yes, but for the wrong reasons.

We have been waging a War on Drugs since the Nixon Administration at a cost of almost $20 billion a year, $600 a second. What do we have to show for it? Almost 15 million Americans self-identify as current marijuana smokers. There has been no significant decrease in drug use. There has, however, been a significant increase in prison populations. There are now over 2 million Americans in prison. That is more that 1 out of every 100 adults. We are only 5% of the world's population, but we are 25% of the world's prisoners. Can we be that pathologically criminal?

Freelance writer and mental health practitioner, Christina Gleason, writes, "According to the Department of Justice, over half of all sentenced federal prisoners are drug offenders. Over 80% of the increase in the federal prison population was due to drug convictions between 1985 and 1995. In addition, a 2006 report claimed that 17% of State prisoners and 18% of Federal prisoners committed their crimes in order to obtain drug money. According to a 2001 report, the average sentence for all offenses was 56.8 months. The average sentence for drug offenses was 75.6 months, while the average sentence for violent offenses was 63.0 months."

Someone is arrested for violating a drug law every 17 seconds. Someone is arrested for violating a cannabis law every 38 seconds. And our last three presidents have all used marijuana. In a White House Drug Policy brief, the Bush Administration attempted to put-to-rest the false notion that there are thousands of people in prison for smoking marijuana claiming less than 1% of all prisoners were behind bars for simple marijuana possession. Well, that is still 15,000 people in prison for doing what Phelps is accused of doing. I am not saying we should legalize drugs, but we should stop putting people in prison for using them.

In 2006, there were 829,625 arrested for using marijuana. That is 829,625 criminal records; 829,625 court appearances; 829,625 lawyer fees; 829,625 families in crisis, 829,625 explanations on job applications, 829,625 young lives disrupted or destroyed. And this is all for violating a 1937 law that was racially motivated to harass Southwestern Mexican immigrants and Northeastern big-city black jazz musicians.

High-profile people can bring about high-profile public awareness. Michael Phelps has the opportunity here to do something truly courageous, responsible, and helpful. Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott is still considering arresting and prosecuting Phelps for using an illegal substance. Rather than sleepwalking through a series of "I'm young and I made a mistake" public apologies, maybe he can take a stand against the USA's reckless and irresponsible drug policies.

Now is the time to speak up rather than lay low. Phelps has been banned from competition for three months. Kellogg's dropped Phelps from an endorsement contract after the photo surfaced. Ironically, regularly eating the products Phelps endorsed will probably do more physical harm than smoking marijuana. However, Michael Phelps is the kind of guy who moves through life as he moves through water—avoiding friction.

Please, Michael, prove me wrong. Show me you are not just a callow young man with big feet, big hands, and extraordinary lung capacity. Speak up. Stand up. It is time to admit that this 38-year-long War on Drugs is about over, and we lost. It's time to sue for peace. In this war, Michael, you can be a negotiator—or a casualty. It's your choice.


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