Is Doing Bong Hits When You're A 23-Year-Old Swimming Legend Really "Regrettable" Behavior?


So Michael Phelps, the superstar swimmer who snagged a record batch of gold medals in last year's Olympics, has now been caught on camera smoking dope and is in the midst of doing a ritual P.R. self-immolation (see headline from tabloid to the right). Here's his apology:

"I engaged in behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment," Phelps said in a statement released by Octagon, his management firm, and posted on his Facebook site. "I'm 23 years old, and despite the successes I have had in the pool, 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."

The Los Angeles Times' account of the situation includes this great paragraph:

Phelps has never failed a drug test during his career and was one of several American athletes who volunteered to undergo additional testing to dispel any suggestions that he might be benefiting from performance-enhancing drugs….

Marijuana, though not considered performance-enhancing, was added to the International Olympic Committee's list of banned substances after the 1998 Olympics. Its use among Olympic athletes became a matter of public debate after Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati tested positive after winning a gold medal in Nagano, Japan, in 1998. Rebagliati was initially stripped of his medal, but in the end kept it because marijuana was, at the time, not on the list.

More here. So (as anyone who ever smoked pot could tell you) marijuana is not performance-enhancing in the way that steroids or human-growith hormone or whatever may be. But the IOC banned it because of…bad publicity essentially (and by the way, Phelps shouldn't face sanctions since it's only a problem if you test positive during competition periods).

Let's be clear: What Phelps did might have been illegal, but it's not wrong in any real sense of the word. He's arguably the greatest living athlete in the world today and I suspect he takes care of his body (and mind) pretty well. Nobody really cares about this sort of thing (folks quoted in the LA Times' story note this will have little to no effect on his sponsorship deals).

The only regrettable behavior and bad judgment the incident highlights is the stupidity of the ongoing war on drugs, which criminalizes a plant that almost half of Americans 12 years and older (including the current president) have tried at one point or another in their lives.

The drug war is not simply a minor issue in America. It is a ubiquitous feature of our lives and the perniciousness of its negative effects on politics, culture, and more can't be measured simply in dollars spent (though that's a good start). It is what I call a "structuring event" in American life, forcing all sorts of activity—from education and athletics, from law enforcement to foreign policy—to pay hypocritical and misdirected lip service to a Just Say No mentality. (More on that here.)

If anything comes of the Phelps incident, let's hope it's a more thoughtful drug policy and not just another wave of anti-drug hysteria.

Reason on drug policy. From the latest issue, Jacob Sullum on how the crusade against drug paraphernalia punishes controversial speech.