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Jason Flom

Jason Flom

Posted February 7, 2009 | 11:45 AM (EST)

Heroes Are Human Beings Too


By Jason Flom and Anthony Papa

Thousands of stories across the country have captured the plight of Michael Phelps and his recent bong incident. Phelps has apologized for his youthful indiscretion. It seems that his apology was accepted by most Americans including the corporate sponsors that gave Phelps lucrative contracts for his endorsements.

Only one spoiler is making noise about the incident. Sheriff Leon Lott of Richland County has said that he will charge Phelps with a crime if he determines he smoked marijuana. Possession of less than an ounce of marijuana in South Carolina is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 30 days in jail or a fine.

Coincidently the Phelps story broke the same day that Santonio Holmes became MVP of Super Bowl XLII. Let's put this in context. Michael Phelps and Santonio Holmes are two superstar athletes involved in different sports but they share a common connection. Phelps starred in Olympics, winning an astounding 14 gold medals, a feat unmatched by any other. Holmes earned honors during last weeks Super Bowl when, in dramatic fashion, he caught the winning touchdown in the closing seconds.

Both athletes felt the thrill of victory in sports. They've also had to address their drug use in the press. It seems like heroics are not enough to cancel out the governments zero tolerance policy when it comes to recreational drug use.

Maybe both of these athletes should have known better. But even our greatest sports heroes are human beings who make mistakes. Both Phelps and Holmes are no different than millions of other Americans. Like Phelps and Holmes, millions of Americans use marijuana, either recreationally or medically.

Let's be honest. Olympic gold medals and bong hits don't mix well with mainstream America. Michael Phelps should know this. But maybe because he is a normal 23 year-old, he forgot. Both Phelps and Holmes remind us that even heroes can make poor choices that cause them to run afoul of the law.

Holmes has come a long way since his arrest in 2008 for the possession of a small amount of marijuana. He was caught with three marijuana-filled cigars in his car. Holmes received a one-game suspension and was allowed to continue the season without further punitive action. Holmes was able to overcome this mid-season stumble and recover to be the hero of the Steelers' record sixth Super Bowl title. Holmes received a second chance to make amends for his mistake. He made the most of it in grand fashion.

But when you're dealing with a government that is hell-bent on continuing an unwinnable war on drugs, it has little regard for mistakes. Take the case of Mitchell Lawrence, an 18 year-old Massachusetts teen, who was sentenced in 2006 to two years in prison for possession of a single marijuana joint. Lawrence received this rather severe punishment at the hands of an over-zealous prosecutor that had little regard for the teenager's youthful indiscretions. His life is forever ruined by the stigma of the arrest.

People who use drugs and people who wrestle with addiction are routinely demonized by the so-called moral majority. Drug use is considered a moral failing. This is wrong. Many people struggle with addiction and it should be addressed in a medical context, not a criminal, punitive one.

And for every person who struggles with drugs and drug addiction, there are millions of others who use drugs recreationally, and responsibly. Phelps and Holmes are two high-profile examples of people who use drugs recreationally and suffer no adverse effects - other than exposing themselves to criminal sanctions due to drug prohibition. Recreational drug use should not be used to demonize individuals. While Phelps and Holmes - tops in their respective sports - may not be destitute and strung out over their drug use, they face ridicule and scorn from Americans who have been convinced that drug use equals paralyzing addiction and ruin.

The moral majority might try to follow Sheriff Lott's lead and call for Phelps' head. One thing is for certain: Michael Phelps is still a hero to America and his career should not go up in smoke because of a single mistake. Santonio Holmes' Super Bowl heroics are a testament to this.



Jason Flom is President of Lava Records and Anthony Papa is communications specialist of the Drug Policy Alliance.