Michael Phelps and Reefer Madness

reefermadnessposterOK. I believe marijuana should be legalized. Let the government regulate it and tax the shit out of it like gasoline and cigarettes. This would raise some additional cash and allow us as a nation to focus on the real criminals on Wall Street and in government an so on rather than worrying about whether someone like Michael Phelps inhaled or not. But that’s what makes writing about Michael Phelps difficult these days. Under most circumstances, it’s not legal.

And I also understand the concerns of many thoughtful people who have argued for decades that smoking marijuana is a health risk, can lead to other drug use and so on. Hey Reefer Madness was well on the way to classic status when I was a toddler in the 1950s.

Like most people, I don’t have the medical or scientific background to argue  those points — other than it has always seemed to me that if you were going to drive on that road then tobacco products, alcohol and cereal laced with sugar should be along for the ride. Isn’t tobacco the real killer weed?

So I’m not addressing the health and safety debate — and I don’t mean that in a dismissive way. But there are some things from an ethical and communications perspective that interest me about the attention that Michael Phelps has been getting since the picture surfaced of him with his face buried in a bong at a party in South Carolina in November.

  • Should Phelps take responsibility for this — and face legal consequences, if any? Clearly, yes. And he knows that, apparently. He told the Associated Press in a story printed in USA Today that he has to live with the fallout from the photo. I agree. You can’t argue for a “new era of personal responsibility” on one hand and then wink at something that is illegal on the other.
  • Rather than apologizing, would Phelps have been better off saying nothing? Mike Edison, former editor of High Times, argues in The Daily Beast that Phelps is being forced to apologize and “eat dirt” — something that our presidents, past and current, didn’t have to do for their youthful indiscretions. Fortunately for Bill Clinton he didn’t inhale. I digress. Anyway, I’m growing weary of the “my bad” defense every time someone does something illegal or unethical. Still, Phelps did the right thing by apologizing and accepting responsibility. Let’s see when or even if A-Rod steps to the plate with a similar disclosure.
  • Should Phelps lose his multimillion-dollar endorsement deal over this? Kellogg was pretty quick to climb out of the endorsement pool. And the company has the right to do that. But something tells me this has more to do with the economy than with Phelps somehow tarnishing his position as a role model for American young people. (Hey. Are those the same kids sitting down to breakfast with a bowl of Frosted Flakes and so on. Sugar Madness.)

As George Vecsey writes in the New York Times: “The wonder is why we make so much of Phelps and guys who dunk basketballs and women who whack tennis balls. Once all the decimal points were up on the scoreboard in Beijing, and somebody handed Phelps a towel, he became a rather ordinary gangly American youth. There was almost no trace of education from the University of Michigan, where Phelps had spent several years training, and his instincts seemed to lean more to house parties than to the classroom.”

And he adds: “The swimming federation [which suspended Phelps for three months] and Kellogg have every right — in fact, a responsibility — to punish Phelps. Other sponsors may follow suit, which will cut into his endorsement swag, estimated at perhaps $100 million over the course of his life.”

  • Why no serious discussion about legalizing marijuana? Shouldn’t the Phelps affair be, as we say in PR, a “triggering event”? As Kathleen Parker writes in The Washington Post, “Phelps Takes a Hit“:

And the law is the law. Therein lies the problem.

Our marijuana laws have been ludicrous for as long as we’ve been alive. Almost half of us (42 percent) have tried marijuana at least once, according to a report published last year in PLoS Medicine, a journal of the Public Library of Science.

The U.S., in fact, boasts the highest percentage of pot smokers among 17 nations surveyed, including The Netherlands, where cannabis clouds waft from coffeehouse windows. Among them are no small number of high-ranking South Carolina leaders (we knew us when), who surely cringe every time a young person gets fingered for a “crime” they themselves have committed.

Other better-known former tokers include our current president and a couple of previous ones, as well as a Supreme Court justice, to name just a few. A complete list would require the slaughter of several mature forests.

And Parker adds:

There are good reasons for substance restrictions for children that need not apply to adults.

That’s the real drug message that should inform our children and our laws, rather than the nonsense that currently passes for drug information.

Today’s anti-drug campaigns are slightly wonkier than yesterday’s “Reefer Madness,” but equally likely to become party hits rather than drug deterrents. One recent ad produced by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy says: “Hey, not trying to be your mom, but there aren’t many jobs out there for potheads.” Whoa, dude, except maybe, like, president of the United States.

  • How comfortable are you — any of us for that matter — knowing that you can go to a party these days and have someone secretly take a picture of you and/or your friends and post it on Facebook, Twitter and so on? That’s what happened to Phelps. He is a celebrity — a public figure. So I guess we’re OK with that. Well, I’m not, really. And everybody is carrying a camera these days. Be careful out there.

And as a prelude to all of this I read an article at the end of January in the New York Times about Cheech and Chong, “Hey Man. Where Have You Guys Been?“. You probably had to have been alive (and survived) during the 60s and 70s to fully appreciate the fact that Tommy Chong and Cheech Marin are back on the comedy tour circuit after being absent for three decades or so. (In fact, looked to me like their comedy caeers went up in smoke. OMG. Can’t believe I said that.) Here’s from the article:

It took a quarter of a century, five presidential administrations, two divorces and a nine-month prison sentence, but Cheech & Chong, those lovable lowlifes of comedy who broke up in 1985 to pursue solo opportunities and get away from each other, have at last reunited.

Sure, they may now carry BlackBerrys and look like your grandfather (if your grandfather kept roach clips in his pockets and had a perpetually squinty look in his eye), but they are still the same genial reprobates of albums like “Big Bambú” and films like “Up in Smoke.”

I saw Cheech and Chong at Kent State in the early 1970s. Ah, the good old days. People inhaled then.

Note to Michael Phelps: If Cheech and Chong can make a comeback, so can you. Trust me.


3 responses to “Michael Phelps and Reefer Madness

  1. Pingback: Michael Phelps and Reefer Madness « PR on the run | Biography of Michael Phelps

  2. I love how this post got a google ping!! You’re on your way to blog stardom now!

    And I totally agree with you. I also can’t understand why anyone cares whether a professional athlete smoked pot. Unlike the A-Rods of the sports world, it’s not like marijuana ever improved an athlete’s performance 🙂

  3. Greatness. Nah. But maybe I’ll be allowed to go see Cheech and Chong.

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