THE BLOG
10/10/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What if Gov. Palin Had Been Arrested for Marijuana?

Sen. John McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, has admitted she smoked marijuana in the past, but says it's not an issue because it was legal under Alaska law. She says though, that marijuana should be illegal. So what she did should have been a crime. And she should be considered a criminal. But it wasn't, and she's not; so it's not an issue. That's a more convoluted obfuscation than former President Clinton's admission that he smoked marijuana "but didn't inhale."

While possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use is legal in Alaska, it's still illegal under federal law. That makes Gov. Palin a criminal in the eyes of the federal government. Does she think she should be sent to federal prison? Or should states be allowed to set their own marijuana policies and the feds should butt out? Eighteen states have marijuana policies at odds with federal law.

And what about the many law-abiding, taxpaying Alaskans who currently smoke marijuana. If marijuana is re-criminalized in Alaska like she proposes, many of these citizens will face arrest and life-long criminal records. Had Gov. Palin been arrested for marijuana, it is doubtful she would be running for Vice President now. In her heart-of-hearts does Gov. Palin really think that people who smoke marijuana belong in jail and not the Governor's Mansion or the White House?

These are not idle questions. The police make more than 1.8 million drug arrests every year in the United States, nearly 700,000 for nothing more than possession of marijuana for personal use. Those arrested are separated from their loved ones, branded criminals, denied jobs, and in many cases prohibited from accessing public assistance for life.

Even if someone is incarcerated for just one day, that can be enough for them to lose their job. In today's economy, losing a job can lead to months of unemployment, undermining families and costing taxpayer money. And a marijuana conviction can follow a person for life, making it harder for them to get a job and leading to reduced earnings potential.

College students who are arrested for marijuana possession automatically lose their student loans under federal law. Depending on the state, a marijuana arrest can make someone ineligible for food stamps and other federal public assistance for life, even if they need aid to feed and clothe their children.

A marijuana arrest, even for a minor offense, is enough to get a person kicked out of public housing and onto the streets. In fact, entire families can be kicked out of federal public housing for the violation of just one member, even if the marijuana offense occurred on the other side of the city.

And in some states, getting caught with marijuana is enough to lose your right to vote, in some cases for life. Of course in Alaska, you can smoke marijuana and get elected to public office. Gov. Palin is lucky. Millions of Americans are not.

It's long past time for Republicans and Democrats alike to admit that the war on marijuana is doing more harm than good. There's no need to be afraid of what voters might think; the American people are already there. Substantial majorities favor legalizing marijuana for medical use (70 percent to 80 percent) and fining recreational marijuana users instead of arresting and jailing them (61 percent to 72 percent). Twelve states have legalized marijuana for medical use and 12 states have decriminalized recreational marijuana use (six states have done both).

Democratic Congressman Barney Frank and Republican Congressman Ron Paul have introduced legislation in Congress that eliminates federal criminal penalties for the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use. Someone should ask Gov. Palin where she stands on the bill. Pot-smoking politicians from Al Gore to Newt Gingrich have dodged the question of why they don't belong in jail but others do. Maybe Gov. Palin really is a maverick.