Not since the olden days in Nottingham has a sheriff been on the verge of sparking an incident that would have such mega-consequences for a population. Can you imagine, kind reader, the firestorm if the drug war – so accustomed to singling out the poor, the minority, the ill and the invisible – suddenly targets America’s Darling and makes Michael Phelps the most recognizable face of peaceful illegal drug use on the planet? It would be akin to throwing a lit match into the basement full of gasoline that underlies current prohibitionist drug policies. Phelps is healthy, soft-spoken, polite, of good humor, skilled on television (as his hosting of Saturday Night Live revealed)… Grandmothers everywhere, when they see his face, don’t want to send him to prison: They want to pinch his cheek.
The media circus that would ensue would bring the hypocrisy of the drug war into every living room and stir a nationwide debate around every kitchen table over how thoroughly senseless the US war on drugs has become. In the context of the step-by-step and incremental policy changes underway, the making of Michael Phelps into martyr and poster boy would serve, much like that first hammer in Berlin, to inspire a thousand more blows against the Drug War Wall, turning its evident cracks into gaping holes and its cement to rubble.
Estimates suggest that half of the U.S. population has at one time or another experimented with marijuana. Two of our last three presidents have admitted as much. The one in between hinted as much.
At Counterpunch, Dale Gieringer provides some historical context on drug prohibition.
On February 9, 1909, Congress passed the Opium Exclusion Act, barring the importation of opium for smoking as of April 1. Thus began a hundred-year crusade that has unleashed unprecedented crime, violence and corruption around the world —- a war with no victory in sight.
Long accustomed to federal drug control, most Americans are unaware that there was once a time when people were free to buy any drug, including opium, cocaine, and cannabis, at the pharmacy. In that bygone era, drug-related crime and violence were largely unknown, and drug use was not a major public concern.
Gieringer tells us that the U.S. motivation for passing the Opium Exclusion was political; to curry the favor of the Chinese government.
Congress was moved to Act in 1909 not by any drug abuse crisis, but by foreign policy concerns. Per capita opium use had begun to decline by 1900, and only one in a thousand Americans indulged in smoking opium. Nonetheless, the State Department determined that an initiative against opium smoking would be useful in opening the door to China, which had long chafed under British compulsion to allow the opium trade. At the invitation of Theodore Roosevelt's administration, an international commission was convened in Shanghai in December 1908 to sign a treaty ending the trade –- the first step in what would become a far-reaching international system of drug control. As a gesture of good faith, the State Department called on Congress to pass legislation that would ban the importation of smoking opium, thereby creating the first illegal drug.
The so-called "War on Drugs" has greatly expanded the prison population:
Early 20th-century Americans would be astounded to see what a problem drugs have become since the establishment of drug prohibition. Every year, two million Americans are arrested and 400,000 imprisoned for drug offenses that did not exist in their time. Drug laws are now the number-one source of crime in the U.S., with one-half of the entire adult population having violated them.
But isn't that the point, after all? As long as those imprisoned are confined to the ranks of "the poor, the minority, the ill and the invisible," the war on drugs doesn't much enter into the conscience of middle class white America. Much like the war on terror doesn't much enter into that conscience. Handy mantras, marketing gimmicks, slogans to move the faithful on a gut level, to keep them from peering too deeply into the abyss.