I'm not sure if it's because we're strung out on "Lost" episodes, or if it's because we're still suffering from a post-9/11 stress disorder that makes us crave "breaking news" alerts, or if it's because the economy has turned us into distraction junkies. But one thing is painfully obvious after Michael Phelps' marijuana "scandal" erupted last week: Our society is addicted to fake outrage -- and to break our dependence, we're going to need far more potent medicine than the herb Phelps was smoking.
If you haven't heard (and I'm guessing you have), the Olympic gold medalist was recently photographed taking a toke of weed. The moment the picture hit the Internet, the media blew the story up, pumping out at least 1,200 dispatches about the "controversy," according to my LexisNexis search. Phelps' sponsors subsequently threatened to pull their endorsement deals, and USA Swimming suspended him for "disappointing so many people."
America is a place where you can destroy millions of lives as a Wall Street executive and still get invited for photo-ops at the White House; a land where the everyman icon -- Joe Sixpack -- is named for his love of shotguning two quarts of beer at holiday gatherings; a "shining city on a hill" where presidential candidates' previous abuse of alcohol and cocaine is portrayed as positive proof of grittiness and character. And yet, somehow, Phelps is the evildoer of the hour because he went to a party and took a hit off someone's bong.
As with most explosions of fake outrage, the Phelps affair asks us to feign anger at something we know is commonplace. A nation of tabloid readers is apoplectic that Brad and Jen divorced, even though one out of every two American marriages ends the same way. A country fetishizing "family values" goes ballistic over the immorality of Paris Hilton's sex tape ... and then keeps spending billions on pornography.
And now we're expected to be indignant about a 23-year-old kid smoking weed, even though studies show that roughly half of us have done the same thing; most of us think pot should be legal in some form; and many of us regularly devour far more toxic substances than marijuana (nicotine, alcohol, reality TV, etc.).
So, in the interest of a little taboo candor, I'm just going to throw editorial caution to the wind and write what lots of us thought -- but were afraid to say -- when we heard about Phelps. Ready? Here goes:
America's drug policy is idiotic.
Doctors can hand out morphine to anyone for anything beyond a headache, but they can't prescribe marijuana to terminal cancer patients. Madison Avenue encourages a population plagued by heart disease to choke down as many artery-clogging Big Macs and Dunkin' Donuts as it can, but it's illegal to consume cannabis, "a weed that has been known to kill approximately no one," as even the archconservative Colorado Springs Gazette admitted in its editorial slamming Phelps.
Indeed, it would be perfectly acceptable -- even artistically admirable in some quarters -- if I told you that I drank myself into a blind stupor while writing this column, but it would be considered "outrageous" if I told you I was instead smoking a joint (FYI, I wasn't doing either).
That said, what's even more inane than our irrational reefer madness is our addiction to the same high that every pothead craves: the high of escapism. Nerves fried from orange terror warnings, Drudge Report sirens and disaster capitalism's roller-coaster economics, our narcotic of choice is fake outrage -- and it packs a punch. It gets us to turn on the television, tune in to the latest manufactured drama, and drop out of the real battle for the republic's future.
2009, Creators Syndicate, Inc.
February 13, 2009 -- Washington Post (DC)
Sometimes A Smoke Is Just A Smoke
Kathleen Parker, Syndicated Columnist
WASHINGTON -- Drink and drive and it's grrrrrrrr-eat! Smoke pot and your flakes are frosted, dude.
So seems the message from Kellogg, which has decided not to renew its sponsorship contract with Michael Phelps after the Olympian was photographed smoking marijuana at a party in South Carolina.
That's showbiz, of course, but the cereal and munchie company had no problem signing Phelps despite a prior alcohol-related arrest. In 2004, Phelps was fined and sentenced to 18 months probation and community service after pleading guilty to driving while impaired.
The silliness of our laws -- and the hypocrisy of our selective attitudes toward mood enhancers -- needs no further elaboration. Even so, things are getting sillier by the minute.
Richland County (S.C.) Sheriff Leon Lott has now made eight pot-related arrests based on the snap that shot around the world. Seven were for possession and one for distribution, after deputies used warrants to enter the house where Phelps allegedly was photographed.
Phelps may be next.
In an earlier column, I gave Lott the benefit of the doubt, suggesting that his hands were tied given the laws of the land and South Carolina's political climate. I retract the benefit.
Sheriffs, though elected and therefore political, have great latitude as to what crimes they pursue. In a state that recently ranked among the most dangerous in the nation, one would think South Carolina's law enforcement officials have better things to do.
Indeed, they do. In our peculiar obsession to track down the Willie Nelsons, Rush Limbaughs, and now Michael Phelpses of society -- nonviolent, victimless imbibers of drugs -- we've actually made society less safe. That's the conclusion of 10,000 cops, prosecutors, judges and others who make up the membership of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.
Howard Wooldridge, LEAP's Washington representative, is a former cop and detective who lectures civic clubs and congressional staffers on the futility of drug laws that reduce public safety by wasting time and money. He points to child pornography as just one example.
As of last April, he says, law enforcement had identified 623,000 computers containing child pornography, including downloadable video of child rape. Only a fraction of those have been pursued with search warrants, thanks to limited resources and staff shortages. What's worse, Wooldridge says, is that three times out of five a search warrant also produces a child victim on the premises.
Another example: Last year Human Rights Watch reported that as many as 400,000 rape kits containing evidence were sitting unopened in criminal labs and storage facilities. Between the Los Angeles Police Department and the L.A. County sheriff's office, nearly 12,000 kits were unopened, according to an NPR report in December.
Arguments against prohibition should be obvious. When you eliminate the victimless "crime" of drug use, you disempower the criminal element. Neutering drug gangs and cartels, not to mention the Taliban, would be no small byproduct of decriminalization. Not only would state regulation minimize toxic concoctions common on the black market, but also taxation would be a windfall in a hurting economy.
No one's saying that drugs aren't dangerous. Alcohol and tobacco are also dangerous.
And no one thinks children should have access to harmful substances, though they already do. Parents who recoil because their child became an addict should note that prohibition didn't help.
What prohibition did was criminalize what is essentially a health problem -- and overcrowd prisons. In 2007, there were 872,720 marijuana arrests in the U.S. Of those, 775,137 were for possession. South Carolina just added eight to this year's roster.
The greatest obstacle to drug law reform is public fear and politics, says Wooldridge, as he set off to give eight presentations on Capitol Hill Thursday. "I've had staffers tell me that to even call a hearing will get you un-elected."
Which, perhaps, explains why Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va. -- the only congressman to even approach the subject recently -- has tackled the drug problem through the issue of prison overcrowding. Webb has held two hearings before the Joint Economic Committee on U.S. drug policy and incarceration costs. This year, he has promised to push for a blue-ribbon commission to study why the U.S. has more people in jail than any other country.
The answer -- and the solution -- seems clear.
I'm not convinced that all drugs should be legalized, but we should at least put prohibition on the table to take another look. In the meantime, Sheriff Lott has some 'splainin' do to.
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