Plastered all over the world today is a photo of Michael Phelps smoking marijuana out of a bong. Mr. Phelps put out a statement saying that he acted in a youthful and inappropriate way and that he promises it won't happen again. Different people are weighing in on the possible impact of this photo on the gold medalist's 100-million-dollar endorsement deals.
Here are a few of my observations on Phelps' bong hits.
Phelps is in good company:
Phelps struck another blow to the myth that marijuana smokers are lazy couch potatoes. Here is the guy who has won more gold medals than anyone in history, and obviously his health and accomplishments are not hindered by smoking some pot. In addition to his swimming skills, he is a successful businessman who has turned his swimming skills into an enormous public relations platform and money generator. Successful and honorable people who have smoked some pot are all around us, from President Obama to Mayor Bloomberg.
Phelps apology was unnecessary:
While Phelps' statement said he acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, he did not pretend to have a drug problem and promise to go to rehab. So many times when celebrities are caught with drugs they give tearful statements and promise to get help. Phelps doesn't appear to have a drug problem and there is no reason for him to take up valuable treatment slots if he doesn't have a drug problem.
Does it Hurt or help his image?
While some "experts" are predicting that Phelps bong hits could cost him millions, I could also see it humanizing him and making him even more popular with a large section of the public. Phelps' swimming accomplishments have always been awe-inspiring, but who could relate to the guy who swam eight hours a day and had to eat 23 hamburgers every day to compensate for the calories he burns off in training? Seeing him with his hat on backwards taking a hit made me feel like I could relate to the guy more. With half of high-school seniors having tried marijuana before they graduate, it is not clear that this photo is going to disillusion his fan base.
Pot use doesn't discriminate, but our pot laws do:
While there has been some progress on acceptance for people who use marijuana, there are still many laws on the books that cause more harm than the smoking of marijuana. Close to 800,000 people were arrested for marijuana last year and the vast majority for only possessing small amounts. Harry Levine and Deborah Small put out a report last year that found that between 1998 and 2007 New York City police arrested 374,900 people for low-level, misdemeanor marijuana offenses. That is more than eight times the number of arrests on the same charges for the previous ten-year period between 1988 and 1997, when 45,300 people were picked up for having small amounts of marijuana.
Researchers also found stark racial disparities in who NYPD officers chose to arrest for marijuana offenses. The report found that 83 percent of those charged in these cases were black or Latino, despite equal marijuana use between whites and non-whites. The discrepancy, the researchers asserted, is because NYPD officers stopped and frisked blacks and Latinos at a dramatically higher rate.
Once someone is convicted of a drug offense, they can lose college financial aid, food stamps, public housing and, in some cases, even voting rights. Money wasted and lives ruined ... and for what?
Phelps Can Continue to be a Role Model:
I like Phelps and don't think his bong hit should hurt him. If he truly wants to be a role model he can take his comments and platform to the next level. He can say simply, "Yes, that was me smoking marijuana, and the laws that ruin peoples' lives for using marijuana should be debated and changed."
Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance
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