Monday, February 2, 2009

Michael Phelps, pot, the press, and the "war on drugs"

Michael Phelps got himself into a spot of trouble when someone took a picture of him taking a couple of hits from a bong. In other words, a young person who has put himself under an incredible amount of stress for several years did something a little stupid that was also fun and relaxing.

In other breaking news, the sun rose in the east today, Republicans spouted angry denunciations of President Obama's stimulus package, and Americans called in to radio talks shows today to talk about yesterday's Super Bowl.

This is ridiculous. The guy took a couple of hits from a bong. Did he end up hurting himself or other people? No. Did he drive away from the party and crash his car, injuring his passengers, who are now in intensive care? No. Did he vomit his guts out on the neighbor's lawn, causing a mess? No.

He took a couple of hits from a bong. Most people at a Grateful Dead concert breathe in more noxious fumes just by walking into the arena. This is trivial at best. If he admitted to being addicted to coke, that would be different. If he admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs before the Olympics, that would be different. If he admitted to having a blood alcohol level of 0.15 while driving a Ferrari 100 mph the wrong way down a busy highway, that would be different. But he never endangered either himself or anyone else, or came close to doing so. Drug abuse is a serious illness. But this is not drug abuse.

His sponsors are sticking with him. Good for them. Omega called it a "nonissue." He's still a member of Team Speedo.

Michael Phelps is a symbol of hard work, dedication, supreme athletic ability, and a healthy lifestyle. But, let's face it, he's also a guy who usually performs his sport almost entirely naked. He's not a great looking guy, but he does have a body that a lot of straight women and gay men drool over quite a bit. The man sells watches and swimsuits because he won eight Olympic gold medals in one Olympics, but also because he looks rather sexy. Sex used to be a source of titillation and not a little illicit. He's not advocating anything having to do with sex, but, let's face it, he gets paid a lot of money in part because he turns some people on. And yet some people are worried about his image because he did something that is technically illegal but that millions of Americans have done?

Andrew Sullivan has been on a crusade against the war on marijuana for a while, and he thinks this episode is particularly ridiculous. I am slowly becoming a reluctant convert to the cause. I just don't think the war on pot is working. I think the Michael Phelps episode says far more about the press than the public or even Michael Phelps. The press still operates on the assumption that we are a "center right country," and that uptight fundamentalists who strongly condemn the use of all kinds of mind-altering substances dominate the public discourse. They don't. The Baby Boomers, many of whom inhaled, are nearing retirement. Bill Clinton lost a little bit of respect when he claimed that he didn't inhale, but he didn't lose an election. Bob Dylan has been an iconic pop culture figure, solidly within the mainstream, for decades.

Meanwhile, as the NY Times reports, we are losing this war. Badly. The comparisons with Prohibition are becoming clearer every day. We are figthing a war we cannot win, and we - and by "we" I mean all civilized people, not just Americans - are paying a higher and higher price. I don't know what the solution is, and I'm not sure how legalization would work, but I know we can't continue like this.

When the Supreme Court issued its decision on gun control last year, the majority came to the conclusion that we have an individual right to own firearms. A lot of liberals didn't like this, but my thinking has evolved. If we do not have a de jure right to own a gun, we have a de facto right. So many people assume that they have the right to own guns as individuals that we cannot, in reality, overturn that politically.

I think the same is true of marijuana use. We are coming close to de facto legalization of pot. It's ridiculously easy to find, it's not hard to grow, and we cannot, in reality, overturn that politically. We are erecting a fence along the Mexican border, and smugglers are literally driving right over it. Watch the video with the NY Times article - it's amazing. Smugglers drive right up to the fence, set up ramps on either side, and drive right over it. Forget an 11-foot ladder for a 10-foot fence - these guys don't use ladders. They built their own driveway - in seconds. In a sense, building a fence forces them to be more creative. A tougher obstacle just means that they use more force, which means that they have to be prepared to move more product to make it worth their while. Talk about perverse incentives. Talk about a policy backfiring. Talk about unintended consequences. Talk about blowback. To really make this fence effective, it would have to look like the Berlin Wall - and even then it wouldn't work very well.

So one young guy, Michael Phelps, a famous athlete, does something a little stupid that does no one any harm, and yet a few news outlets make a story out of it. They're interested in conflict - that's their job. But meanwhile, a responsible journalistic enterprise, the Gray Lady, points out the costs of our foibles.

I don't want to see seriously dangerous drugs like heroin and cocaine legalized. Someone on crack could easily cause harm to me or someone else. But I've known potheads and people who smoked casually who did so for years and never got into any trouble and never touched anything harder. It's time to end this war.


Pocket-Sized Cinematographer said...

Bravo! I agree with everything you've said (and not just in this article), although I do disagree with one sentence of yours:

"Sex used to be a source of titillation and not a little illicit."

Sex still is. Granted, we're all burnt out on the Paris Hiltons and the Lindsay Lohans, but that's a matter of overused context, not sex. Trust me, if naked photos leaked tomorrow of Hilary Clinton from her college days, people would go apeshit. The media would not shut up for weeks about it, maybe even months, and who knows what effect this would have on Clinton's career?

What a shame we all have to live like monks and nuns in order to not worry about sabotaging our current or future careers -- never mind that monks and nuns throughout history got up to some pretty fascinating things of their own. According to the media, we're no longer allowed to be human; how long will this regime last?

JohnTEQP said...

How long will this last? Until the Baby Boomers stop fighting their parents. Which I predict will happen somewhere around the 90th anniversary of Woodstock. Or when Bob Dylan's grandchildren have grandchildren.