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February 9, 2009 -- St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Phelps Story Shows We Should Say No To Drug War

By Bill McClellan, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Many people are making light of the Michael Phelps situation. With the price of marijuana these days, how could any pothead in his right mind let a guy with the lung capacity of an Olympic swimmer take a hit on his bong? Also, why doesn't some fast-food chain make an endorsement deal with Phelps? "When I have a craving for something to eat at midnight -- and I have those cravings! -- I know where to go."

But when you put the jokes aside, Phelps is a national security issue.

Does he belong in prison?

I say he doesn't. As regular readers know, I consider pot no more harmful than booze. Maybe less harmful. I don't hear of many pot smokers driving the wrong way down the interstate. Of course, in a perfect world, we wouldn't need any intoxicants. We'd all be high on life, digging sunsets.

But few of us have found that kind of inner peace, and so we seek something less natural than a sunset. For most of us, it's a drink to take the edge off the day. For others, it's a joint.

The odd thing is one is legal and one isn't. I say odd because I have enjoyed many a drink and many a joint, and I don't feel any better about myself because I no longer smoke pot. I no longer smoke pot only because I don't want to get in trouble. In that regard, I'm no different than most of my contemporaries. I remember a time when you couldn't go to a party without somebody handing you a joint. If you had asked me then if pot would someday be legal, I'd have said, Of course, it will -- just as soon as my generation takes over.

Then my generation took over and continued the old policies. Now we've passed the torch to the next generation, and the country is still trying to make drug prohibition work.

If it seems to work at all, it's only because we cheat. There are two sets of rules. If you have money and a drug problem, you have a medical issue. If you're poor and have a drug problem, you have a legal issue.

We completely inoculate the wealthy and pretty much give the middle class a break.

Perhaps you're thinking, "That might be unfair, but it is not a national security issue. We have two sets of rules for most things. Look at taxes. If you have the right connections, you can cheat on your taxes and become the secretary of the Treasury. If you don't have the right connections, you can go to jail."

But the drug issue goes beyond merely unfair.

Right now we have on our southern border a country that is on the edge of anarchy. Mexico is in danger of becoming a failed state, a narcostate. The drug cartels are terrorizing the country. Just last week, while we were giggling about Phelps, a retired general was tortured and killed near the resort city of Cancun. He had been the commander of the military district in the state of Michoacan.

Ah, Michoacan. I spent New Year's Day of 2008 in the capital city of Morelia. I was there to visit the monarch butterflies that spend the winter in the nearby mountains. My son and I spent New Year's Eve in the town plaza, the zocalo.

Nine months later, that plaza was crowded with people celebrating Mexican Independence Day when members of a drug cartel threw grenades into the plaza. Eight people were killed and more than 100 injured. The gangsters were sending a message to the people. Don't cooperate with the authorities. I read the stories with horror. I saw the photos of the Mexican soldiers standing in the plaza the next day. They were wearing masks so they could not be identified by the drug cartels.

These cartels are able to bribe officials. They kill those they can't bribe. (Plata o plomo. Silver or lead.) They're able to do this because of the enormous profits in the illegal drug business.

And where does this money come from?

The United States. We provide the demand. As long as we do, there will be a supply. So it seems we have a choice.

We could legalize drugs. Just as we traded bootleggers for Gussie Busch, we could trade the drug cartels for legitimate businesses. If you want a Corona, you buy it from Grupo Modelo.

Or we could put a crimp in the demand. The only way to do that would be to start putting users in jail. Not just the poor users, but all the users. That would be a problem. But at least it would be a bipartisan problem. Barack Obama and George W. Bush were both users. We know that because Obama has written about his drug history and Bush was secretly taped by a friend talking about his. Actually, the list of past users is darned near endless.

But let's say for my sake that we didn't make the new laws retroactive. Let's say that from now on, we start putting all drug users in prison. That's the only way to slow the demand.

So what do we do about Phelps?

If you want to make the War on Drugs work, it seems like you have to put him in prison. That sounds crazy to me, but the present reality makes no sense. An Olympic hero smokes pot. We giggle. Mexico burns.

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