When an athlete’s exploits go from the sports page to the front page it’s usually never good. Just ask Michael Phelps. He is, of course, the famous Olympic swimmer with the eight gold medals who was recently photographed apparently in the act of smoking marijuana at a college party in South Carolina.
If you subtract the eight gold medals from the equation, the “bong hit” enjoyed by young Mr. Phelps (he’s 23) really wouldn’t have made much news. But due to his notoriety we’re reading about it everywhere.
The first folks to weigh in were the businesses that pay the swimmer millions to endorse their products. A swimsuit company said it could live with the indiscretion and would keep Phelps on, but his days as a Wheaties pitchman are now over for good.
Just this morning I read that law enforcement officials in South Carolina have already arrested some of the other pot-using party-goers in an effort to tighten the prosecutorial net around Mr. Phelps. That seems to me like a lot of work and expense wasted on a misdemeanor marijuana charge, but then I’m not on the ballot in the next sheriff’s race down there either.
And if you’re interested in opinions, you can go online and read a whole batch of them from columnists weighing in on just how much Mr. Phelps has besmirched his role as a national role model. But nobody yet that I have seen has asked the question I want to see explored. It has nothing to do with Michael Phelps’ advertisers or with his judgment.
It’s about the marijuana he was smoking.
First, accept the inarguable premise that Michael Phelps is one of the most incredibly conditioned, dedicated athletes of all time. Then, even though it may be a little less certain, accept the fact that this probably wasn’t the first time he has ever smoked marijuana.
If both of these facts are true, shouldn’t we at least question how perhaps the fittest athlete of our generation could also, during at least some times in his life, recreationally use marijuana to apparently no ill effect. If marijuana is the “evil weed” might this not be a good time to ask just how evil it really is?
We test athletes for steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs as well we should. Using those drugs is cheating and they all cause well-established, long-term health problems. Similarly, we know enough about many harder drugs to understand how addictive they are and how damaging they can be both physically and emotionally to people who use them.
But marijuana, it seems to me, is in a category all its own. It, like alcohol, can certainly be abused, but are we so sure Michael Phelps’ bong hit was more damaging to him than the alcohol he could have consumed instead.
At a time when our economy is in shambles, the only people making a dime off Maine’s marijuana harvest are criminals willing to break the law. And it’s the same in the other 49 states, even Alaska. I’ll leave it to someone who knows what he’s talking about to do the math, but I have no doubt that if marijuana was regulated and taxed by federal and state governments that a substantial amount of revenue would be raised.
Of course we shouldn’t make a dangerous drug legal to balance the budget. At the same time though, we shouldn’t be shy about rethinking any of our laws as new evidence confronts us.
I’m sure that smoking a little marijuana isn’t going to help anyone make the next Olympic team, but just maybe it might not do them any harm either.