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Sometimes a smoke is just a smoke

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Kathleen Parker
February 13, 2009
— 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 might 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 United States. 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 on 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 United States 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.


Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Her e-mail address is kparker@kparker.com.

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