Fourteen time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps was photographed in November smoking from a pipe typically used for smoking marijuana, leaving his legacy as an idol and hero forever tainted. Several media outlets have taken every opportunity to embarrass him, most notably the News of the World, which ran a large photo of Phelps emblazoned with the phrase “WHAT A DOPE.”
The unfortunate situation Phelps finds himself in may lend an opportunity to revisit America’s legal inconsistencies regarding drugs.
Prohibition of alcohol in the United States began after an amendment to the constitution in 1920. The federal act, known by some as the “Noble Experiment,” resulted in several unanticipated failures. Regardless of what legislation was passed, many people were unconvinced that alcohol posed an ethical issue and continued to consume it. The new law put heavier burdens on the police force, the justice system and correctional facilities. Because of public outcry and practical limitations, the Constitution was amended once again and Prohibition was repealed.
The parallels to the current prohibition of marijuana cannot be ignored. Much of the stigma surrounding marijuana is rooted in legal positivism — the notion that laws should be supported blindly without concern for their justifications — rather than rational scientific and ethical evaluation.
Though alcohol is used recreationally as a mind-altering substance, many don’t think of it as a drug. It has negative health effects when abused and is chemically addictive, and its relief of inhibitions has been directly linked to violent crimes.
Marijuana shares only one of these features, the negative health implications, and even in that regard is arguably less harmful, according to the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research.
The contemporary Noble Experiment of nationally banning cannabis has run up against the same problems as Prohibition did in the ’20s.
According to an FBI Uniform Crime Report, more arrests in 2007 were for drug violations than any other offense. Of those, 47 percent were for marijuana — including more than 757,000 arrests for possession of marijuana without intent to distribute.
A study published last year in The Lancet measured the average harm rating for substances ranging from prescription drugs to heroin. It found cannabis to have a lower overall harm rating than either alcohol or tobacco — both of which are regulated, taxed and legal for all Americans over the age of 21.
The government should be held to consistency in its drug policy — either by prohibiting all recreational substances considered harmful, or building its restrictions upon medical evidence.