Eat, Sleep, Swim… and Smoke
February 01, 2009 | Don Duncan
US Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, who won eight gold medals in the Beijing games last year, was photographed smoking cannabis at a college party in November. He issued the standard apology after a picture of him holding a water pipe surfaced in the tabloids this week, telling the Associated Press he engaged in “regrettable” behavior and “demonstrated bad judgment." Time will tell if the incident will have any effect of Phelps’ career or his lucrative endorsement contracts. So why is cannabis use by a 23-year old athlete considered newsworthy? Phelps is a public figure, of course, and tabloids need to manufacture controversy in order to sell copies and ads. But setting aside the shortcomings sensational media, there is still a great public ambivalence about using cannabis. Parents and pundits will wring their hands in the op-ed pages worrying what message Phelps’ transgression sends to children. Medical cannabis advocates would do well to take note of the brief public controversy surrounding this photograph. 80% of Americans support medical cannabis, but that does not mean they are comfortable with its use – especially when they see it publicly or in their neighborhood. As the state of California moves closer and closer to full implementation of its medical cannabis laws, neighbors and local representatives are encountering the issue of medical cannabis use in very up close and personal ways – loved ones are getting recommendations, dispensaries are opening nearby, and advertising for medical cannabis is increasingly commonplace. Most Americans have some experience with cannabis use, theirs or a loved one, and not all of those experiences are good. Much of that baggage will come up as we continue to engage this issue in neighborhood councils, City Councils, and other local forums – in California and other medical cannabis states. Advocates for medical cannabis should not underestimate this concern in the neighborhoods as we push for implementation, especially for local regulations for medical cannabis dispensaries. The seeds of a backlash lie in this ambivalence, and the consequences can be severe – even late in the process.