Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?

Human Rights

The following is an excerpt from the just-released book, Marijuana is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? by Steve Fox, Paul Armentano, and Mason Tvert (Chelsea Green, 2009).

Dateline: February 1, 2009. It’s Super Bowl Sunday and throughout the nation millions of Americans have stocked their shelves and refrigerators with alcohol for the big game. In living rooms across the country, guests will enjoy the libations and gawk at the humorous beer commercials sprinkled liberally throughout the telecast. Like the Fourth of July and fireworks, the Super Bowl and booze are an American tradition. There is no societal stigma associated with this excessive drinking. It is all part of the celebration. Like the old saying goes: “We don’t have a drinking problem. We drink. We get drunk. No problem.”

But as the day’s festivities build to a climax, the nation is thrown into turmoil. Internet headlines announce that Olympic swimming hero Michael Phelps, who months earlier had electrified audiences throughout the world by winning eight gold medals in Beijing, had been captured in full digital glory taking a bong hit at a private party. The horrors! How could he do such a thing?

Almost immediately online articles appear, replete with quotes of disillusionment from anyone with even a tangential connection to the world’s most decorated Olympian. Hours later, Phelps issues a public statement. He apologizes for his “regrettable” behavior and “bad judgment,” and promises “it will not happen again.” Was Phelps’s apology issued because he was reportedly also drunk and “obnoxious” at the same party? Of course not. Being drunk in public is not the sort of behavior that triggers public outrage and social condemnation.Taking a hit or two of marijuana, on the other hand, most certainly is.

In the days that followed, our society piled on the way it often does when someone famous is caught smoking grass. Predictably, there was mockery and derision. For example, one Huffington Post blogger posted a column with the headline, “Phelps Congratulates Cardinals on Super Bowl Win.”1 (The Arizona Cardinals lost the game on a last-minute touchdown, caught, ironically enough, by another recently outed marijuana smoker, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Santonio Holmes.) The body of the essay included such “witticisms” as Phelps claiming to have missed the end of the game because of a “wicked attack of the munchies.” Naturally, the writer did not mock Phelps’s drunken behavior.

Several of Phelps’s corporate sponsors, while not immediately jumping off the financial gravy train, expressed their own sense of dismay. Michael Humphrey, chief executive of the PureSport beverage company, issued the following statement: “We applaud the fact that he (Michael Phelps) has taken full and immediate responsibility for his mistake and apologized to us, his fans and the public and we support him during this difficult time.” Similarly, a U.S. congressman from Phelps’s home state of Maryland, Elijah Cummings, appeared on television to express his deep concern and disappointment in this otherwise “great kid.”

By week’s end, America’s corporate establishment brought the hammer down upon Phelps. First, the Kellogg’s Company dropped the Olympic gold medalist as a spokesperson, explaining that his behavior was “not consistent with the image of Kellogg.” Soon thereafter, USA Swimming, the sport’s national governing body, suspended Phelps from competition for three months -- even though he had not violated any existing drug-testing policy. (Marijuana is not a prohibited substance during the off-season.) “[W]e decided to send a strong message to Michael,” the organization said, “because he disappointed so many people, particularly the hundreds of thousands of USA Swimming member kids who look up to him as a role model and a hero.”

Far from being outraged (at least publicly) about the decision, Phelps was contrite and repentant. According to USA Swimming, Phelps “voluntarily accepted this reprimand” and was “committed to earn[ing] back [their] trust.”

As if all of this wasn’t enough, Leon Lott, the sheriff in Richland County, South Carolina, where the bong hit heard round the world had occurred, launched a criminal investigation of the matter worthy of a hunt for a suspected terrorist. Several weeks following the incident, twelve armed deputies, with guns drawn, burst into the home where the party had taken place and arrested two residents. Cops also seized four laptops, a desktop computer, and an electronic storage device. They found less than six grams of marijuana in the home -- which is about what they would find in any off-campus apartment in the United States -- but they were hardly concerned about illegal contraband. Rather, the lawyers for the defendants said that the cops only wanted to know whether the two individuals had witnessed Phelps using marijuana. Richland County law enforcement officials later arrested six more individuals, all in an effort to weed out the nation’s most famous weed aficionado. Finally, after several weeks of this taxpayer-funded silliness, Sheriff Lott eventually announced that he had failed to find sufficient evidence to press criminal charges against Michael Phelps, or for that matter, anyone else.

Let’s review, shall we? The most successful Olympian in history attends a college party, pounds a few beers, and allegedly behaves like a drunken ass. At some point during the evening, he inhales a bit of marijuana. When all of this becomes public, he is run through the social, corporate, and legal wringer—but only for his suspected pot use. So what lesson has our champion swimmer learned? That’s simple. Next time he goes out in public, he should just stick to being drunk and obnoxious.

Michael Phelps’s story is hardly unique. Rather, it highlights the myriad ways that society intentionally steers citizens away from cannabis and toward the use of a more harmful substance, alcohol.

Sure, all Americans know that marijuana is illegal, and most are aware that the government purposely spreads misleading information about the drug’s allegedly adverse effects. But how many of you have stopped to think about the ways that other entities are directly or indirectly involved in maintaining cannabis prohibition? After all, the government could not uphold the status quo all by itself. It requires the assistance of private and public employers, athletic associations, and the mainstream media. Each of these groups, by acting according to (assumed) societal norms, their leaders’ own personal biases, or perhaps, as we discuss later, their own financial interests, take actions that reinforce the government’s criminalizing of cannabis.

While these coercive actions and public policies have certainly not eliminated the drug from our society, there is little doubt that collectively they have produced an artificially low level of marijuana use among U.S. adults.

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