Michael Phelps has nothing to apologize for. I understand the reality he faces, however, and why he has to say what he said. But let’s go beyond the breathless theatrics and think about the core issue. “He broke the law,” the pundits are saying, as if that is necessarily the end of the conversation. Sorry, but Phelps was not wrong; our marijuana laws are wrong. Really wrong.
Does anybody alive even remember why it was outlawed? No, of course you don’t – but you’ll do yourself well to look over the historical – and hysterical – record.
Let’s take a few choice quotes from the era of marijuana criminalization, shall we?
“Marihuana influences Negroes to look at white people in the eye, step on white men’s shadows and look at a white woman twice.”
[1934 newspaper editorial in favor of criminalization]
“All Mexicans are crazy, and this stuff is what makes them crazy.”
[Texas legislator arguing for criminalization]
These weren’t just morons on the street. In fact, Harry Anslinger, our nation’s first drug czar (under President Hoover), offered these ominous warnings for young Americans tempted by the evil weed:
“Colored students at the University of Minnesota were partying with white female students, smoking marijuana and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result: pregnancy.”
“Two Negroes took a girl fourteen years old and kept her for two days under the influence of hemp. Upon recovery she was found to be suffering from syphilis.”
“An entire family was murdered by a youthful addict in Florida. When officers arrived at the home, they found the youth staggering about in a human slaughterhouse. With an axe he had killed his father, mother, two brothers, and a sister. He seemed to be in a daze… He had no recollection of having committed the multiple crime. The officers knew him ordinarily as a sane, rather quiet young man; now he was pitifully crazed. They sought the reason. The boy said that he had been in the habit of smoking something which youthful friends called “muggles” a childish name for marijuana.”
And today, we laugh at those old quotes – and movies like “Reefer Madness” – as if we’re soooo much smarter now. But we’re not. The current crop of “Drugs Are For Losers” public disinformation ads are hardly better. I saw one recently with a teenage kid smoking pot, and somehow because of this – inside of 30 seconds – his little brother ended up drowning in the pool. Boy did he feel stupid! He didn’t know they meant “killer bud” literally!
The reason the ads are dumb, of course, is because they are tasked with the impossible – defending an indefensible policy. There is absolutely no rational, cogent argument in support of the status quo with regard to marijuana. None. Well, at least there is no intellectually consistent argument for its criminalization that does not necessarily take with it alcohol, tobacco, cheesecake, and even sex (or at least sex with hot chicks.)
Since there is no actual, just, sensible reason to keep marijuana illegal (at least not for those who are non-authoritarian and non-idiot) we make stuff up. There’s no science to support it; just dogma, so we must write very creatively. From the heart to the heart, as it were. I suppose the only truly “good” reasons are self-interest; say, if you work for a corporation or a big-budget government agency that benefits from the status quo – well, then, you’ll just have to make scary, dumb shit up. Some people will even believe it.
The crux of it is that we need to deeply and seriously consider our assumptions on this issue and actually do something about it. This is not a matter of a few hippies who want to get high. We have created a colossal social disaster with our drug policies and spend billions of dollars every year punishing people for politically incorrect vices. And the real tragedy is that most kids are not as lucky as Phelps. Millions of supposedly free Americans – a vast majority of them poor black Americans – have been stopped, searched, arrested, imprisoned, separated from their families, stripped of eligibility for student aid, and eternally exiled from the world of gainful employment and upward mobility. If that is not racism – if that is not consciously and deliberately knocking the socioeconomic wind out of millions – then please tell me what is.
Yet we build more prisons. We sign the checks. We assent – however tacitly – to these policies. It’s not happening because of some bad people far away. It is happening because of us.
Legalness does not automatically confer moralness nor justness. This is especially true when the laws are based entirely on racism, ignorance, lies, hate, and fear – and completely unsupported by the facts.
We know there are plenty of immoral things that are totally legal. It is likewise also true that all illegal things are not immoral. To go further, some laws are immoral. Thus, laws are sometimes wrong (hence the concept in legal philosophy of “natural law”). And unjust laws do not deserve the same respect as laws that are just. Our society has not evolved into a Utopia where every good and just thing has reached a state of permanent, beautiful, codified perfection while every dumb, bad thing has been rinsed cleanly away from our social fabric. (One need only tune to prime time reality television to know this.) On the contrary; there is legal laundry to do. Many great thinkers have spoken eloquently at great length about the difficult social and legal work required to evolve a great, healthy nation. To evolve, we must ask tough questions and be we willing to – however uncomfortable – face our brokenness and fix things when they are wrong. And our drug laws are absolutely, totally wrong. To borrow from Saint Augustine: unjust law is no law at all.
Now, back to Phelps. Today, Kellogg said they would not renew their sponsorship deal with him because his behavior was “not consistent with the image of Kellogg.”
Wow – you’ve really got to love the delicious, high-fructose-corn-syrup-encrusted irony of Kellogg’s slamming Phelps’ private behavior while they market marshmallow Fruit Loops and chocolate banana Pop Tarts to millions of kids.
Are we a serious country?