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A grass-roots situation

Michael Phelps' use of marijuana is far from a novelty in the sports world and leads to a debate of whether it is much ado about nothing.

February 08, 2009|Chuck Culpepper

And so suddenly here's marijuana -- yep, marijuana -- hogging itself another heyday, bolting into the spotlight, all but sashaying back into dialogue and shouting, "Hey, I'm still here."

Shadowed in cycles through recent decades while other legal or illegal or performance-enhancing stimulants took turns getting all the hype, marijuana has just hollered in the case of merely the most-decorated Olympian in history, Michael Phelps. It has tried to yell from the recent past of the Super Bowl most valuable player, who alighted at Disney World only four months after a forgotten arrest.

It has appeared this week in the suitcase of an arrested college basketball point guard at an airport, and this winter in the possession of a former Dallas receiver, and a Seattle linebacker, and a Florida State receiver, and a retired NBA forward/center, and amid a Japanese sumo wrestling scandal if you can believe such, and in November with a New York Jets defensive end, and last spring in that bellwether moment on talk radio, when Dallas Mavericks forward Josh Howard readily said he enjoyed an inhale.

Marijuana? Who knew? Yeah, well, OK, pretty much everybody did.

"It has been constant in terms of it being the most popular of the illicit drugs," said Roger Roffman, a professor at the University of Washington, whose study of marijuana in culture dates clear back to the Vietnam War as a social worker for the Army. Even if its relative usage doesn't match its peak from the late 1970s, Roffman said its No. 1 ranking has remained impenetrable.

It's just that news coverage and human discourse run in cycles, as Roffman reminded, and seldom has any cycle known a louder clash than a 14-time gold medalist heralded as classic Americana ramming into a photo at a party with a bong. Such a noise far occludes even the fact that Santonio Holmes, NFL superhero and honored Disney guest, logged a one-game suspension in October after Pittsburgh police pulled him over, got a whiff of his SUV and asked if he'd been smoking, whereupon, according to their report, he said, "No, but yesterday I was."

Because sports permeates everything, those keen on the marijuana issue all along have seen the case of Phelps and his multitudinous corporate sponsors as a gauge of the American mood circa 2009.

Quiet ruled for days. Then Thursday, Kellogg's halted its sponsorship of Phelps, finding his behavior "not consistent with the image of Kellogg's," the 103-year-old Michigan cereal titan. Subway, another sponsor, opted for censure but not discontinuance. From a far different culture, the Swiss watchmaker Omega deemed it "a non-issue."

"I think there would have been a much stronger and larger fallout" for an American gold medalist 10 or 20 years ago, said Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. In the Phelps brouhaha, Armentano has sensed a profound shift in national dialogue and in media questions, even if he does still chafe when incorrigible headline writers find double-entendres irresistible. In his view, a swift, toned, dominant athlete who "more than the average American is cognizant of what he puts in his body" simply "blows to smithereens" marijuana's images of slackerdom.

"Kellogg's is playing by the rules of 20 years ago," Armentano said. "Subway is playing by the rules of 1986 and the 'War on Drugs.' Those rules have changed."

This time around, in fact, some High Times website readers have called for a boycott of Kellogg's, while Roffman surmises that could lead to opponents calling for a boycott of the boycott of Kellogg's.

That's because as the debate has roiled on and Roffman has followed it, he has detected four sides, all of which, he said, don "blinders" when regarding the other three.

Group 1 emphasizes that most adults who smoke marijuana do so occasionally and "without really any harm," Roffman said, "and that's a very hard thing for us to publicly acknowledge." Group 2 stresses that "a substantial number of marijuana smokers get into real trouble" and "derail" from functionality.

Group 3 considers marijuana central to life on Earth and tends to live alternatively both culturally and politically, yet manages to function. And Group 4 entails medical users, whose approval in various states -- California in 1996 -- has helped soften the stigma over time.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, for example, trains on Group 2 and maintains in its policy statements, "Smoked marijuana has not withstood the rigors of science -- it is not medicine and it is not safe," and, "Legalization of marijuana, no matter how it begins, will come at the expense of our children and public safety." More personally, a Colorado mother of a 12-year-old swimmer said of Phelps on ABC News, "I am absolutely appalled. Honestly, absolutely appalled, sickened and saddened."

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