(UPDATE 2/11/2009: An article posted at http://hightimes.com/legal/ht_admin/5072 notes that hemp-friendly Seattle Chief of Police Gil Kerlikowske has apparently been offered the helm of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, more commonly known as the "drug czar." Drop by the article and have a quick read to learn the very real hands-off stance the chief has taken towards marijuana in the past. This could be yet another high profile step toward changing the national perception and opinion toward legalization.)
Ever heard of a kid named Michael Phelps?
America has heard of him. He has been the All-American poster child of what we all aspire to be since he brought home a record-setting eight gold medals in the Olympic Games. The twenty-year-old swimmer has been described as classy, humble, and well-spoken. He shattered nearly every swimming record on file while maintaining a good, clean, wholesome image that made him a media darling who was still firmly in the spotlight a month into 2009, when his image took a hit.
To be more precise, it was a bong hit. A U.K. tabloid broke the story of Phelps' exploits at a frat party, complete with the camera-phone cover shot of the athlete taking a hit off a water bong, which can be used for tobacco but is nearly always used for smoking marijuana. The immediate aftermath was pretty devastating: talk show hosts had their way with him, sponsor Kellogg's terminated their contract with him, and Phelps issued a heartfelt apology, expressing his regret for acting in "a youthful and inappropriate way." The South Carolina sheriff which holds jurisdiction over the location of the incident has been very public in his considerations of pressing chargers, obviously hoping to catch a wave of drug-tough publicity on the notion that the backlash on Phelps will remain strong.
However, overall sentiment has been much more forgiving of the Olympic star. Subway did not follow Kellogg's lead in cancelling Phelps' sponsorship deal and most Americans seem to be sympathetic to a youthful person making a youthful mistake. Even Fox News, no fans of the legalization movement, featured a segment with pro wrestler Rob Van Dam, a strong advocate of marijuana legalization, which seemed to indicate a very lax attitude towards the use of the drug amongst athletes.
(Note: While "pro wrestling" may bring to mind a less-than-ideal image in the minds of those who do not know, Rob Van Dam is an exceptionally talented, well-rounded athlete, and also happens to be quite well-spoken and informed on the topic of legalization. The video is available on YouTube, or you can read his blog at http://www.robvandam.com/index.php?c=blog&id=10 )
Phelps has shown himself to be intelligent, articulate, and a phenomenal athlete. Ricky Williams obviously had huge talent on the gridiron. Willie Nelson's pushing octagenarian status (he's 75) and still has a mind as sharp as a Ginsu knife.
Why, then, is marijuana classified as a Schedule I Controlled Substance, considered by the federal government to be more dangerous than Schedule II substances cocaine and meth? Even the strongest anti-drug crusaders would concede that marijuana is not more dangerous than cocaine or meth.
This is a critical time in the legalization movement. With the Phelps-inspired media blitz and softened public opinion on marijuana, now is the time for NORML and other pro-legalization groups to grow, educate, and reform. The pro-legalization movement needs to jump on this at the height of this public awareness and use the proverbial soapbox before we've all moved on to some other celebrity drama.
If reform is ever going to happen in present-day America, it will start with sensationalist media coverage of a celebrity followed by a self-aware mobilization of organized supporters, and this is the best chance that the pro-legalization movement is going to have to educate a captive audience and change the perspectives of those whose votes are needed to create this shift. Full speed ahead, NORML and related organizations, and good luck.