Late last week, the blogs were abuzz over a U.S. attorney's decision to drop marijuana possession charges against Daily Disher Andrew Sullivan. Apparently, in a rare fit of prosecutorial commonsense, the U.S. attorney's office determined that it did not want a simple marijuana possession charge to undermine Sullivan's pending immigration case and result in deportation.
Did Sullivan receive special treatment? It seems pretty clear that he did. He hired a top-notch lawyer who was probably able to make a personal plea to the U.S. attorney, arguing that moving forward with this case and causing the deportation of a prominent figure in the media for possession of a joint would not be worth the substantial negative publicity it would generate.
(Perhaps the U.S. attorney even thought that punishment would be far more severe than the crime. But, if this was the case, it would not be consistent with the actions of prosecutors across the country who seem all too willing to move forward with hundreds of thousands of marijuana possession cases annually regardless of the possible collateral sanctions for the unlucky offender.)
Surely, most other individuals busted with a joint in a national park are not in a position to have their lawyers make an argument about the injustice of a potentially massive penalty for a minor crime. Instead, they accept the charge, pay their fine, and move on. But, just like with Sullivan, this legal formality could have major consequences on their lives. It could be raised in child custody hearings. It might cause them to lose their jobs or may make it more challenging to secure future employment. A marijuana possession charge, if nothing else, carries with it a criminal record -- and a stigma -- that can last a lifetime.
Most Americans see nothing wrong with this -- even many Americans who are willing to admit that marijuana should be legal. A frequently heard comment is, "Sure, it doesn't make sense that marijuana is illegal, but if Person X was dumb enough to break the law, then he deserves the punishment he gets." Many people are saying this about Sullivan now, just as they said it about superstar running back Ricky Williams when the NFL suspended him for using marijuana repeatedly.
The absurdity becomes all the more evident when you consider adults' use of both marijuana and alcohol in this country. The American people have been brainwashed into thinking that the two substances fall into two entirely different categories: alcohol, a "legal" drug, is acceptable; marijuana, an "illegal" drug, is not. Therefore, those who choose to use marijuana are considered to be doing something bad or wrong.
This ingrained mindset needs to be reversed. It is time for people to accept the fact that millions of Americans use marijuana regularly, just like millions of Americans use alcohol regularly. The only difference is that marijuana -- by every possible objective measure -- is far less harmful than alcohol. It is less addictive, less toxic, less likely to produce serious negative health effects, and far less likely to contribute to acts of violence.
No one -- let me repeat that, no one! -- deserves to be punished in any way for making the safer choice to use marijuana instead of alcohol for recreation or relaxation. Andrew Sullivan may have made a mistake by having a few puffs in a national park -- especially since a far-reaching decriminalization law adopted last year in Massachusetts made the use of marijuana far less risky in basically any other part of the state -- but he did not make a mistake by choosing to use marijuana.
He is an adult. He is able to make decisions for himself. He is intelligent enough to determine whether he would prefer to enjoy his night with a martini or a little marijuana. In fact, the choice he made -- putting the location aside -- demonstrates in itself that he is able to make an intelligent choice about which substance to use. Our government should not be in the business of spending law enforcement resources on a scheme designed to ensure that Sullivan cannot make this choice and can only have a martini or some other form of alcohol.
Adults who make the rational choice to use marijuana instead of alcohol should not face deportation, loss of employment, eviction from public housing, or any other penalty. Andrew Sullivan may have received special treatment, but he received the appropriate treatment. Now, we need to change our laws so that this appropriate treatment is the rule, not the exception.
Mason Tvert is executive director of SAFER (Safer Alternative For Enjoyable Recreation) and coauthor of Marijuana Is Safer: So why are we driving people to drink? (Chelsea Green, August 2009).
Follow Mason Tvert on Twitter: www.twitter.com/SAFERchoice