Why Condemn Phelps, When We Ought to Condemn the Laws That Brand Him a Criminal

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Add decorated Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps to the growing list of successful Americans who happens to indulge in marijuana during his down time. The tabloid news story is making international headlines, though it’s difficult to understand why.

After all, Mr. Phelps is hardly alone in his herbal inclinations. According to national and federal surveys, nearly one out of two Americans have tried weed, and among those age 18 to 25 — Phelps is 23 — pot smoking is especially popular.

Contrary to the messages promoted by the federal government, marijuana consumers include people from all walks of life, ethnic classes, and socio-economic backgrounds. America’s current President said that he smoked marijuana regularly as a young man. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, former Vice President Al Gore, former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and legendary astronomer Carl Sagan all have admitted using marijuana at different times during their lives.

According to the U.S. government, most current marijuana users are gainfully employed. Statistically, most marijuana users are successful academically and financially. A National Bureau of Economic Research study even reported that marijuana use is associated with earning higher wages. Some former and current users, like Virgin tycoon Sir Richard Branson, Progressive Auto Insurance founder Peter Lewis, and New York State Mayor Michael Bloomberg are even multi-millionaires.

Perhaps the public’s fascination with this story is because Phelps is recognized as one of the most talented and successful athletes in the entire world. (He holds the record for the most gold medals won by any athlete in history.) But Phelps isn’t an anomaly in this regard either. Many top athletes use cannabis off the field — noting that it helps them to relax after the excitement of sports competition and alleviate the pain from nagging injuries. It also won’t leave them with a hangover or adversely impact their performance the next day.

A 1997 New York Times investigation estimated that up to 70 percent of pro-basketball players occasionally indulge in the use of pot, and many high-profile football players — most notably Miami Dolphins star running-back Ricky Williams, former Dallas Cowboys all-star Mark Stepnoski, and even Super Bowl XLIII MVP Santonio Holmes — have spoken candidly about their off-field marijuana use. In fact, Phelps isn’t even the first gold medalist to admit to smoking cannabis. That honor belongs to Canadian snowboarder and 1998 Winter Olympics gold medal winner Ross Rebagliati, who tested positive for having used cannabis in the days prior to his history-making performance.

Sure, there will be some who will say that this latest chapter in Phelp’s life is deserving of criticism because the 14-time gold medalist is sending a poor message to young children. And what message would that be? That you can occasionally smoke marijuana and still be successful in life. Well sorry if the truth hurts.

Fact is, most Americans who use pot do so for the same reasons — and in the same manner — as do those who drink alcohol. According to a recent University of Alberta study, the majority of adults who use cannabis do so recreationally to “enhance relaxation.” Researchers concluded: “[M]ost adult marijuana users regulate use to their recreational time and do not use compulsively. Rather, their use is purposively intended to enhance their leisure activities and manage the challenges and demands of living in contemporary modern society. Generally, participants reported using marijuana because it enhanced relaxation and concentration, making a broad range of leisure activities more enjoyable and pleasurable.”

No doubt Michael Phelps indulged in the use of marijuana for these very same reasons. He ought not to be condemned for it nor branded a criminal for his actions.

For that matter, neither should anyone else.

Paul Armentano [send him mail] is the deputy director of NORML and the NORML Foundation. He is also the co-author of the forthcoming book Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People To Drink?, to be published in 2009 by Chelsea Green.

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