03/21/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Michael Phelps Puts a Face to a Smoking Injustice

Marijuana drug arrests in communities of color are a common occurrence. Yet, recent news of swimmer Michael Phelps involvement with the drug is casting a whole new light on the fairness of current marijuana policy and is jumpstarting an international dialogue that is long overdue.

Olympic gold medal swimmer Michael Phelps looks like a lanky, likeable kid. And when I saw that now-infamous picture of him smoking a marijuana pipe, I have to admit my first thought wasn't how this was going to affect his swimming career, but rather how he was lucky he was a white, lanky likeable kid.

Had he been black or brown chances are that he would have been pawning one of those gold medals for his bail. He may still have to but the fact is he's still free while eight others who partied with him are finding themselves cuffed and jailed.

Authorities say they are building a case against Phelps by arresting those eight unlucky potheads. It doesn't matter that sheriff's deputies admit to only confiscating an ounce of marijuana. It's against the law to smoke, possess or share the drug with anyone and so manpower and taxpayer money will be dedicated to bringing Phelps to justice -- the threat to society that he is.

I can't help but think that for thousands of African Americans and Latinos who have found themselves in the same situation as Phelps, law enforcement has never been so patient when it comes to waiting to arrest them for smoking pot -- and they weren't even photographed in the act!

Phelps' involvement may be temporarily bad for his endorsement career but it's a good thing for highlighting the need for change in our marijuana drug laws, especially for the sake of people of color. It's been documented with federal data and by both The Sentencing Project and Human Rights Watch organizations that there exists large disparities in the rate at which people of color and whites are arrested and imprisoned for drug offenses, even though both groups have almost equal rates of illegal drug use.

Taking into consideration that our jails are overflowing; one in nine black men between the ages of 20-34-years-old and 1 in 36 adult Hispanic men comprise the prison population; and 2006 drug-related arrests totaled 1.89 million with 4 in 10 of those arrests for marijuana possession, then it's easy to see that there is bad government policy dictating our drug laws regarding marijuana and it's adversely impacting black and Latino communities.

As much as the "Just Say No" crowd would like to criminally equate marijuana with crack cocaine and heroin, the truth of the matter is that the public doesn't see it that way.

In the days following Phelps' "situation," an NBC Dallas affiliate asked its viewers to text into the station whether A. Phelps should be charged; B. He should make a televised apology and that's it or C. He's been through enough -- 62 percent said he's been through enough.

The national movement to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes is gaining steam as well.

One of the submissions in the "Ideas for Change in America" competition that made it among the top ten to be presented to President Obama after his inauguration was legalizing the medicinal and recreational use of marijuana. It garnered almost 20,000 votes from people who visited the site.

Supporters of the idea are encouraged that they finally have Washington's ear since an Obama White House spokesman spoke out against the Drug Enforcement Agency's policy of raiding state-legal medical marijuana outlets.

But the push to legalize marijuana isn't confined to the United States. This week, the former presidents of Mexico, Colombia and Brazil presented a report to the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy where they called for the decriminalization of marijuana for personal use and a change in tactics on the war on drugs.

Cesar Gaviria, former president of Colombia, said, "The problem is that current policies are based on prejudices and fears and not on results."

It's these same prejudices that would rather lock up and throw away the keys to cells housing people of color who are only as guilty as Phelps. The only difference is that no one is taking into account the impact of their arrests on their futures.

It's time we did.

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