Pubdate: Thu, 10 Apr 2003
Source: Reason Online (US)
Copyright: 2003 The Reason Foundation
Author: Paul Armentano
Bookmark: (Cannabis)
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)


Former Cowboys Center Mark Stepnoski Tackles Prohibition

Pro athletes aren't altogether uncommon on Capitol Hill. Former New York 
Knick Bill Bradley and NFL luminaries Steve Largent and Jack Kemp recently 
served prominent stints in Congress, and baseball Hall-of-Famer Jim Bunning 
continues to call Washington, DC his home away from home. Nevertheless, 
last month's appearance by former Dallas Cowboy Mark Stepnoski in the 
nation's capitol raised more than its share of political eyebrows.

Standing 6'2", with shoulder-length hair and a diamond-encrusted Super Bowl 
ring prominently displayed on his right hand, Stepnoski, 36, typically 
stands out in a crowd. His recent visit to Washington DC was no exception. 
But even more striking than his presence on Capitol Hill was his purpose: 
Mark Stepnoski is one of the nation's leading advocates for the 
liberalization of America's pot laws.

"Prohibition has been going on for decades and is a proven failure," he 
says. "Drugs are more prevalent than ever and [the number of Americans 
using drugs] has not changed ... My belief is that if something isn't 
working then it's time to try something else."

For Stepnoski, that "something else" includes immediately 
decriminalizing--and perhaps down the road, legalizing--marijuana. "It's 
hypocritical to imprison people for using a substance that's been 
scientifically proven to be safer than many other legal substances," he 
argues. "It makes no sense to imprison people for using a non-lethal 
product like marijuana."

Since retiring from the NFL in 2001 after 13 years playing center in 
Dallas, Houston and Tennessee, Stepnoski's gone full throttle to make pot 
decriminalization a political reality. He's traded his number-53 jersey for 
a suit and tie, and accepted a position as the president of the Texas 
chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

"They most closely represented what I believed," Stepnoski says of his 
decision to align with NORML, which lobbies for the legalization of 
marijuana for medicinal and recreational purposes. "It doesn't make sense 
to use our fiscal resources imprisoning non-violent drug offenders, 
particularly marijuana smokers. It's counterproductive to spend $25,000 a 
year locking somebody up because they got caught with a couple of joints."

Stepnoski's first order of business is to persuade the Texas legislature to 
amend the state's notorious pot laws, which impose six-months in jail and a 
$2,000 fine for those caught with even minor amounts of weed. "I've lived 
in Texas on and off for 13 years, and I'm embarrassed by the fact that it 
has the highest incarceration rate in America," he says. In addition, more 
than half of Texas' estimated 104,000 annual drug-related arrests are for 
marijuana possession. Stepnoski hopes that passage of House Bill 715, which 
would reduce marijuana possession penalties of up to an ounce of pot to a 
fine-only offense, will help change that fact, but admits that the bill's 
chances this year are slim.

Nevertheless, it's likely that Stepnoski's second goal--to persuade the 
federal government to cease arresting pot smokers--may prove even more 
elusive, particularly given Washington's increasingly conservative 
political climate. When it comes to the notion of reevaluating the drug 
war, it appears Capitol Hill's "steel curtain" is even tougher than 
Pittsburgh's. Stepnoski, who recently spent two days in DC meeting with 
various members of Congress, still refuses to chalk up his recent visit as 
one for the loss column.

"Some of the aides agreed with me," he notes enthusiastically. "But getting 
their boss to agree is a whole different story. Too many of the old 
stereotypes still exist."

If anyone can help to break those stereotypes, it's Stepnoski. His academic 
honors (He was a member of the National Honors Society at Cathedral Prep 
high school in Erie, PA and a Hall of Fame scholar athlete at the 
University of Pittsburgh.) and athletic credentials (Stepnoski played on 
two Super Bowl championship teams, made five consecutive Pro-Bowl 
appearances, and holds NFL "All-Decade" honors for the 1990s.) speak for 
themselves. "Sure, drugs could destroy dreams if people choose not to be 
responsible about their use," says Stepnoski, who admits he smoked pot 
occasionally throughout his pro career, "but that describes such a small 
percentage of people over all who use drugs. For example, eighty million 
Americans have tried marijuana; if it destroyed dreams, we'd have a nation 
of broken dreams. Most people have better things to do than sit around 
getting high or drunk all day."

Stepnoski certainly did. At one point in his career, he started 48 
consecutive games as an NFL center--a remarkable feat for such a physically 
punishing position. (Though he denies ever smoking marijuana prior to a 
game, Stepnoski does admit lighting up after games to help relieve the 
aches and pains he suffered on the playing field.) Today he brings that 
same drive and determination to his lobbying efforts, and refuses to be 
discouraged by critics who argue that his political beliefs send the "wrong 
message" to children.

"Just because I'm an advocate for a change in policy does not mean that I'm 
an advocate for [use of] the substance itself," he says. "I've come out and 
said that smoking marijuana occasionally has never prevented me from 
attaining the goals I've set for myself. How that sends the wrong message 
to someone I don't know. That's just giving an accurate account of my past."

Nor is Stepnoski discouraged by the reluctance of politicians to move 
forward on the drug reform issue. Rather, the five-time Pro Bowler believes 
that Congress will either catch up to the prevailing public opinion or be 
sacked by the voters.

"As time goes on, the political paradigm will shift in our favor because 
you can only argue with truth and reason for so long," Stepnoski concludes. 
"It's been said that the truth goes through three stages. First it's 
ridiculed. Then it's violently opposed. Then it's accepted as self-evident. 
I think right now we're somewhere between the 'violently opposed' and 
'self-evident' stage, but hopefully a little closer to the latter than the 

If so, the term Super Bowl may one day take on an entirely new meaning.
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MAP posted-by: Terry Liittschwager