Phelps, Pot and the Law

My latest FindLaw column asks whether Tim Geithner, Michael Phelps and Rod Blagojevich were treated "unequally" because their particular infractions led to results that differ from what we would have expected for ordinary people. I argue that much of the discussion of these characters confuses questions of role modeling with questions of equality. Here I'll focus briefly on Phelps and pot.

My column accepts the notion that Kellogg---which chose not to renew its endorsement deal with Phelps, although then claimed that this had nothing to do with the bong pic---was within its rights to disassociate its product from Phelps. Kellogg presumably was getting pressure from parents who were worried that their kids would see Phelps on a box of corn flakes and thus conclude that smoking pot is not just cool, but helps you win gold medals in the Olympics.

There is something at least a little far-fetched in those fears. After all, had Kellogg kept Phelps on, they wouldn't exactly have put a picture of him doing bong hits on the cover of the corn flakes box. Still, I get the objection. Teenagers would read or hear about Phelps's extracurricular activity and still see him on the cereal box.

But suppose that you think---as I think---that marijuana shouldn't be illegal. What exactly is the message you're trying to convey to them that Michael Phelps is undermining? My kids are 7 and 4, so we haven't had this conversation yet, but I imagine it would go something like this:
Marijuana is illegal to use in this country, and even though you or I might think that it ought to be legal, in a democracy if you disagree with a law, you can try to change it, but while it remains on the books, you obey the law. Also, even though marijuana probably isn't any worse than other, legal drugs, if you don't have glaucoma or loss of appetite, it's certainly not good for you, and because it's illegal, obtaining marijuana will put you in potential danger because you'll be exposed to people who are involved in more serious criminal activity. Finally, even if marijuana were legal, there would be a minimum age you'd have to be to get it, and you're younger than that minimum age.
This little speech is vulnerable at a number of points. Is there even a prima facie duty to obey the law simply because it is the law? Some legal philosophers think not, and even those who say there is acknowledge that this duty can be overridden. To be sure, smoking pot to get high isn't exactly civil disobedience of an unjust law in the Thoreau/MLK tradition, but try explaining that to a teenager. And of course, everybody breaks some laws for convenience reasons alone: driving 50 mph in a 45 mph zone, coming to a rolling stop at a stop sign, etc. At the end of the day, it's hard to distinguish these sorts of minor infractions from pot smoking, except on prudential grounds.

Perhaps most fundamentally, the problem with this speech is its first premise: that we have a functioning democracy with respect to our drug laws. Despite the lessons supposedly learned from Prohibition, we have repeated the experience with drugs, including relatively benign drugs like marijuana. That suggests that there is something fundamentally broken with our politics. For example, last year Barney Frank managed to get 23 co-sponsors (including Ron Paul and my own Congressman, Maurice Hinchey) for a bill that would remove federal penalties for medical marijuana made legal under state law. The bill would not have removed federal penalties for marijuana generally, and even if it had passed, it would have still left in place state penalties. Even this modest measure died without a vote.

This is an issue simply crying out for political leadership and there are at least some hopeful signs in some states. (See, e.g., this editorial re NY's Rockefeller Laws.) But at the federal level, don't expect much action. During the transition, had a section in which readers could vote for questions to ask the President-elect. A question about legalizing marijuana rose to the very top (which is, admittedly, bizarre, given the urgency of the economic situation). Here was the exchange:
Q: Will you consider legalizing marijuana so that the government can regulate it, tax it, put age limits on it, and create millions of new jobs and create a billion dollar industry right here in the U.S.?

A: President-elect Obama is not in favor of the legalization of marijuana.
Dude, that is so not change we can believe in.

Posted by Mike Dorf