Michael Phelps smoking pot harmless

By Lauren Kelly

Michael Phelps can be called an Olympic superstar, a 14-time gold medal winner, a record-breaking athlete, an all-American swimmer and, most recently, a pot smoker.

A photograph of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps smoking marijuana from a bong surfaced last week after being published in a British tabloid. The photo has since circulated in the media, forcing the press to talk about the issue of recreational cannabis use in the United States.

According to various government surveys, more than 80 million Americans have admitted to using cannabis at some time in their life. That translates to roughly 35 percent of those over 18. Even President Barack Obama has been honest about his past drug use, admitting to smoking marijuana and trying cocaine in college. Given these facts, it seems that Phelps is wrongly shouldering the weight of our nation’s irrational attitude toward marijuana use.

Phelps, 23, has tens of millions of dollars in endorsement contracts from companies such as Nike, McDonald’s, Visa, Speedo, Kellogg’s and AT&T Inc. Kellogg’s also said they would not renew their contract. His agent said he could earn $100 million over the course of his lifetime. These corporate sponsors pressured him into issuing a public apology, which seemed blatantly contrived by a public relations agent.

“I engaged in behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment,” Phelps said in the official statement. “I’m 23 years old, and despite the successes I’ve had in the pool, I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, not in a manner people have come to expect from me. For this, I am sorry. I promise my fans and the public it will not happen again.”

Through the coverage of this story, the media has, in some respects, enhanced the idea that what the athlete did was wrong. CNN broadcaster Don Lemon said the photograph was a “startling image,” saying Phelps should “know better.”

In an interview on the same CNN broadcast, Marijuana Policy Project director of communications Bruce Mirken countered that stance and said, “I just think it’s sad that this incredibly accomplished young man feels like he’s in a position of having to apologize and act like he did something terrible for relaxing with something that’s safer than beer.”

Just like alcohol, cannabis is not listed as a banned substance during out-of-competition testing by the World Anti-Doping Agency. Still, Phelps may be facing criminal charges for his actions, according to the state of South Carolina, where the photo was taken. But before branding Phelps as a criminal, there needs to be a critical examination of the laws that condemn him to that fate.

According to the FBI, 872,721 people were arrested for cannabis-related violations in 2007, almost 90 percent of them for possession only. Marijuana now constitutes almost half of all drug arrests. In an already overworked judicial system, does it make sense to prosecute casual cannabis users? Don’t we have bigger issues to worry about than people smoking weed?

In the United States, marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 narcotic, grouped in the same category as heroin and morphine. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, Schedule 1 drugs have a high potential for addiction and abuse and no recognized medical value.

This is simply false.

Cannabis has been cultivated for use by humans for more than 5,000 years and is not physically addictive. It has proven medical benefits and can ease the suffering of AIDS patients, arthritis and glaucoma sufferers, as well as people with Multiple Sclerosis, among others.

No one has ever died directly from using cannabis. The same can’t be said for alcohol and a number of prescription drugs. NORML, a leading marijuana laws reform organization, said in a blog post on Feb. 3 that “more people this year have already died from peanut butter than pot.”

The issue here is bigger than a pro athlete smoking a little grass. America needs to reassess its stance on marijuana use and create a more sensible approach to policy regarding drugs. This nation needs to look at the facts and put science before politics.