High Times Greats: Michael Phelps

Did Michael Phelps’s multimillion-dollar toke from back in the day plant the seed of future reforms?
High Times Greats: Michael Phelps
Michael Phelps by Louisa Bertman

From the June, 2009 issue of High Times comes David Bienenstock’s piece “Bongs Away,” inspired by Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, who turns 36 years old on June 30.

Will America’s 15 million monthly pot smokers look back in the not-too-distant future and remember 14-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps as the man who legalized marijuana? No. But the curious case of the swimmer who inhaled will come to symbolize the exact moment when our nation’s long-suffering herbal enthusiasts finally realized their collective political power—and the march from there to de facto legalization may end up being a far shorter journey than any one previously predicted.

The new algebra when it comes to marijuana policy starts at the top. For the first time in at least 30 years, the President of the United States appears willing to allow significant reform under his watch. Not that he’ll be leading the charge. Asked on the campaign trail for his position, Barack Obama called medical marijuana “entirely appropriate” and promised an end to DEA raids on medical-cannabis providers in states with laws protecting them. But he also strongly indicated that he wouldn’t use his personal “political capital” to push this issue.

“When we’re trying to get health care passed or end the war in Iraq,” Obama reasoned, “the likelihood of [marijuana reform] being real high on my list is not likely.”

After the election, however, when the incoming administration launched change.gov to solicit questions from the citizenry, one query quickly shot to the top of the list:

“Will you consider legalizing marijuana so that the government can regulate it, tax it, put age limits on it, create millions of new jobs and create a billion-dollar industry right here in the US?”

Good question, but, unfortunately, a lot of stoners didn’t like the unequivocal answer posted in reply:

“President-elect Obama is not in favor of the legalization of marijuana.”

Doesn’t exactly sound like “change you can breathe in,” but then again, sometimes—even in a one-line answer—you’ve got to read between the lines. So while Obama flatly stated that he does not support marijuana legalization, it’s equally worth noting that he does not say he’s opposed to it. Nor does he feel the need to trot out tired, long-discredited talking points like “think of the children,” “gateway drug,” “wrong message” or “higher potency.”

And so the long-suffering marijuana community dutifully braced itself for four more years of hard work, with little help from above. But then, just two days after Obama’s historic inauguration, the DEA raided a medical-marijuana dispensary in South Lake Tahoe, CA. With Bush-era leftovers temporarily heading the DEA, the Justice Department and the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the raid appeared timed to embarrass the new administration into maintaining the status quo.

Marijuana activists—burned by this latest injustice, but not surprised—hoped that the impending confirmation of Eric Holder as US attorney general would give Obama a new opportunity to make good on his promise to end the raids. On the very day Holder took office, however, the DEA struck again, targeting two more medical-cannabis dispensaries, this time in the Los Angeles area, seizing money and marijuana but making no arrests.

Meanwhile, just one day earlier, a photograph of Michael Phelps allegedly smoking ganja from a glass Roor bong had surfaced in a British tabloid, sparking a “scandal” that would soon spread to every comer of the globe. Hyped as a national hero (and dolphin hybrid) after earning a chestful of gold medals at the 2008 Olympics, the 23-year-old Phelps quickly became an unwilling poster boy for Cannabis sativa.

Predictably, the young athlete, fearing for his lucrative product endorsements, issued a public apology, and was subsequently suspended by USA Swimming for three months and dropped by Kellogg’s as a cereal spokesman. All that remained was for someone in the Drug Czar’s office to somehow link Phelps’s bong hit to “Cheech & Chong medicine,” claim that children would surely get the wrong message if cancer patients used marijuana to treat the nausea associated with chemotherapy, and then boldly reaffirm our nation’s irrational willingness to waste billions of dollars every year in an un- winnable war against a largely harmless plant.

But then a funny thing happened. Minus a campaign of coordinated disinformation and bitter opposition from the federal government, America’s legions of responsible, adult marijuana smokers finally had a chance to stick up for themselves.

“When the DEA raided, we started to get concerned,” said Don Duncan, California director of the national medical-marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, speaking at a meeting of supporters. “There was a tremendous grassroots outcry that you didn’t see in the media. So many people called the White House switchboard that they came to us and asked us what we wanted.”

On Feb. 5, just three days after the second round of DEA raids, the new administration publicly addressed medical marijuana for the first time. And all of a sudden, we went from politicians afraid of appearing “soft on drugs” to those afraid of appearing short on compassion and common sense.

“The president believes that federal resources should not be used to circumvent state laws, and as he continues to appoint senior leadership to fill out the ranks of the federal government, he expects them to review their policies with that in mind,” White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said, referring to the still-unfilled leadership posts at the DEA and ONDCP, A week later, the Obama administration floated former Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske for the position of Drug Czar. If appointed, Kerlikowske would control the ONDCP, including its nearly $14 billion budget, and be charged with formulating and coordinating national drug-control policy.

Best known to the marijuana-law reform community as the person responsible for his department’s professional and non-confrontational oversight during the annual Seattle Hempfest, Kerlikowske has made Seattle a “model for sensible marijuana policy,” according to the Drug War Chronicle. While not outwardly in favor of legalizing marijuana, Kerlikowske would nonetheless represent a significant departure from the “reefer madness” that has afflicted all previous Drug Czars since the position was created in 1988.

But What About Michael Phelps?

Soon after the now-infamous bong photo surfaced, details began to emerge about the night in question, which ended at an off-campus house near the University of South Carolina. Puffing tuff with some friends and strangers after an evening out on the town, the erstwhile “roll model” ended up costing himself millions in endorsements. The stakes, unfortunately, got much higher for Phelps’s cannabis colleagues once the local sheriff got involved.

Based on the photo of Phelps pulling tubes, Sheriff Leon Lott of Richland County, SC, obtained a search warrant for the house that had hosted the pot party, and followed it up by raiding the place. The police made eight arrests (including one for distribution) and also confiscated the notorious bong—which its owner had allegedly tried to sell on eBay for $100,000.

But then another funny thing happened. Sheriff Lott took such a beating in the press for his vindictive waste of taxpayer dollars that the “investigation” into the Phelps photo was unceremoniously dropped without any charges being filed against the swimmer at the center of the scandal. Most newspaper editorials and TV pundits, sensing the shifting (fragrant?) winds on marijuana policy, took the opportunity not to defend the sheriff, Kellogg’s or the once untouchable “War on Drugs,” but instead to ask why marijuana is illegal in the first place.

Of course, this long-overdue debate begins decidedly too late for the “Phelps 8,” whose fate remains uncertain as of press time. So while Michael Phelps says he’s ready to “dive back into the pool, having put this whole thing behind me,” it’s left to the rest of us to point out that, as usual, the rich and the powerful get an exemption in the non-stop War on Weed that needlessly arrests over 800,000 Americans every year.

But maybe not for much longer.

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