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Clouded Judgement

Dan Berger,
Drug Law Reform Project
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February 3, 2009

(Originally posted on Daily Kos.)

Only six months removed from an historic athletic performance that won him the adoration of millions the world over, Olympic champion Michael Phelps is once again making headlines — caught on film with his gold-medal-smooching lips firmly planted within the rim of a marijuana-packed bong. The now infamous photo, ubiquitous from ESPN to E! and everywhere in between, drew a hasty and ostensibly heartfelt apology from Phelps, who explained, "I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, not in a manner that people have come to expect from me. For this, I am sorry. I promise my fans and the public it will not happen again."

Deeply engrossed in hour after hour of after-hour Super Bowl coverage, I was treated to Phelps' mea culpa countless times courtesy of the worldwide leader's onscreen sports ticker. It was hard to ignore the unspoken irony displaying ad nauseum on television screens from sea to shining sea: Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Santonio Holmes — anointed the Super Bowl's Most Valuable Player — showered with accolades well-deserved, not a detractor in sight; Phelps, formerly a do-no-wrong golden child, now shamed relentlessly over his youthful indiscretions.

After all, maybe I'm misremembering, but I could have sworn Santonio Holmes was not so far removed from some indiscretions of his own. Ah, yes — it was week eight of the NFL season when Holmes was found in possession of several pre-rolled marijuana cigars, resulting in a misdemeanor charge and a one-game suspension, but obviously bearing little on his ability to excel at the highest level of professional football. Top it all off with a hefty helping of beer-pimping Clydesdales and Dalmatians, and some subliminal suggestions that I try living the High Life, and it's hard to know what to make of it all.

The world's most decorated Olympian, the Super Bowl MVP, the bulk of professional basketball players, the current and former U.S. President — not to mention millions of skilled, hardworking, responsible people the world over — use (or have used) marijuana recreationally. Denying this reality and its clear implications — all while absorbing an unending string of alcohol advertisements — seems the very definition of willful ignorance.

Marijuana is, by any measure, of comparable or less harm than alcohol, and our policies should reflect as much. I am by no means advocating that anyone use marijuana, or alcohol for that matter (more for me), and I certainly sympathize with opposing arguments that I really ought to "think of the children" — I just disagree with them. Hiding the truth — that marijuana is comparable to alcohol; that innumerable successful people, from world-class athletes to world leaders, use or have used marijuana; that the greatest risk posed by marijuana use is, in fact, the prospect of arrest — does no one any good, least of all the young people we mean to protect.

The overblown rhetoric surrounding marijuana, so readily and regularly revealed to be baseless bluster — as most recently evidenced by the weekend's events — causes young people to distrust what should be reliable sources of critical information about both marijuana and other, more dangerous drugs. A marijuana policy rooted in lies and scare tactics is sure to produce adolescents forever skeptical of public officials — not necessarily a bad thing — and also runs the danger of causing individuals to underestimate the risks posed by more serious drugs — certainly a bad thing.

Our nation's drug policy, as well as the pronouncements of politicians, pundits and, above all, public health officials, should strive to provide young people the tools they need to make informed decisions — minimizing the danger faced by those who inevitably choose to experiment with drugs and alcohol, whether as adolescents or adults.

I eagerly await the day when a bong-hit will raise no more eyebrows than a pint-hoist, and I imagine Michael Phelps and Santonio Holmes feel the same. At least we were spared the federal government's unbelievably costly and counterproductive drug war propaganda this Super Bowl — I guess even record-breaking budget deficits have their upside.

(Disclaimer: Santonio Holmes' arrest stemmed from a traffic stop during which marijuana was found in his vehicle. He was not, however, accused of driving under the influence. Needless to say, driving under the influence of any drug, including marijuana or alcohol, is dangerous and should remain illegal.)

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