The Michael Phelps/bong hit story broke during my recent blogging interregnum, so I haven't had a chance to favor you with my thoughts on the matter. I don't actually have a dog in this fight: I don't smoke pot, and with the exception of a tiny handful of furtive, youthful experiments, I never have. That said, I thought all the hoohaw over the picture of Phelps with a bong was ridiculous.
Understand: Pot is not a performance-enhancing drug (maybe for archers or biathletes, but not swimmers!), nor (by all accounts) is it banned by FINA outside of competition... so there was no issue of "cheating," a la the steroid and human growth hormone revelations in baseball or the blood doping and erythropoietin (EPO) scandals in cycling. Further, while I doubt anybody would claim with a straight face that the infamous picture doesn't show Phelps actually smoking pot, it certainly doesn't constitute clear evidence that he was: There's no way to prove, from the photo alone, that there was pot (or anything, for that matter) in the bong. So it's not surprising that authorities declined to prosecute him.
In fact, it's shocking that they would even think about it: Under South Carolina law, possession of an ounce or less is a misdemeanor. I would never argue that Phelps should get special favors because of his fame, but he shouldn't be harassed because of it, either... and when was the last time you heard of a "regular person" being prosecuted because a photo of him possibly committing a simple misdemeanor showed up on teh intertoobz months after the fact? Let's be serious, shall we?
Ahh, but the Richland Country sheriff apparently has a rep to maintain as a Miami Vice-style crusader against "drug crime." Not for nothin', but haven't we had about enough of law enforcement from the Carolinas trying to make a name for itself on the backs of prominent athletes? And isn't calling this a "drug crime" a bit hyperbolic anyway? What Phelps did was partake of a mild intoxicant while enjoying himself at a party. If it had been a beer or a glass of wine (or a Sardonic Buddha), nobody would've thought a thing of it. And if we had halfway rational laws on this point, the law would treat it just as if it were a beer or a glass of wine.
Well maybe, just maybe, we're getting a little more rational. In the wake of the Phelps story, Rob Kall of the Huffington Post suggested that it might hint at a turning point in drug policy; today, relatively quietly amid the continuing cacophony of economic woes and the gathering budget battle, comes word that the federal government will no longer raid distributors of medical marijuana in states where it is legal. It's not legalization, nor is it exactly an earthshattering shift in policy... but I think it represents a shift in attitude, a move away from the stern-daddy disapproval of conservative rule, that will eventually lead to liberalization of social policy on many fronts. Every journey begins with but a single step, after all.
To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, "this is the way a policy ends."