From Beijing to bong

The Baltimore Sun

It's hell being a celebrity, especially if you're young and find yourself at a party, where marijuana and cameras should never mix. And it's not exactly heaven being sheriff of a county with escalating drug crimes and pressure to treat all offenders equally.

Thus it is that Olympian swimmer Michael Phelps and Sheriff Leon Lott of South Carolina's Richland County are being forced to treat seriously a crime that shouldn't be one.

As everyone knows by now, Mr. Phelps, a Rodgers Forge native who now lives in Baltimore, was photographed smoking from an Olympic-sized bong during a University of South Carolina party last November. As all fallen heroes must, Mr. Phelps has apologized for behavior that was "regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment," and has promised never to be a lesser role model again.

Sheriff Lott, meanwhile, is threatening action against Mr. Phelps because ... he has to. Widely respected and admired as a "good guy" who came up through the ranks, Sheriff Lott is in a jam. Not one to sweat the small stuff, he nevertheless has said that he'll charge Mr. Phelps with a crime if he determines that the 14-time gold-medal winner did, in fact, smoke pot in his county.

The sheriff's job will be made both easier and tougher by evidence that includes a photograph of Mr. Phelps with his face buried in a smoke-filled tube and what Sheriff Lott has called a "partial confession." Mr. Phelps has said that the photo is legit. The only missing link, apparently, is the exact location of the party.

What's tough is that Sheriff Lott probably doesn't want to press charges because it's a waste of time and resources. He has much bigger fish to fry, but several recent drug-related crimes - including at least two high-profile murders - have captured community attention.

And the law is the law. Therein lies the problem.

Our marijuana laws have been ludicrous for as long as we've been alive. Almost half of us (42 percent) have tried marijuana at least once, according to a report published last year in PLoS Medicine, a journal of the Public Library of Science. The U.S., in fact, boasts the highest percentage of pot smokers among 17 nations surveyed, including the Netherlands, where cannabis clouds waft from coffeehouse windows. Better-known former tokers include our current president and a couple of previous ones, as well as a Supreme Court justice, to name just a few. A complete list would require the slaughter of several mature forests.

This we know: Were Mr. Phelps to run for public office someday and admit to having smoked pot in his youth, he would be forgiven. Yet, in the present, we impose monstrous expectations on our heroes. Several hand-wringing commentaries have surfaced the past few days, lamenting the tragic loss for disappointed moms, dads and The Children.

Understandably, parents worry that their kids will emulate their idol, but the problem isn't Mr. Phelps, who is, in fact, an adult. The problem is our laws - and our lies.

Obviously, children shouldn't smoke anything, legal or otherwise. Nor should they drink alcoholic beverages, even though their parents might. There are good reasons for substance restrictions for children that need not apply to adults.

That's the real drug message that should inform our children and our laws, rather than the nonsense that currently passes for drug information. Once a kid realizes that pot doesn't make him insane, he might figure other drug information is equally false. That's how marijuana becomes a gateway drug.

Mr. Phelps may be an involuntary hero to this charge, but his name and face bring necessary attention to a farce in which nearly half of Americans are actors. It's time to recognize that all drugs are not equal - and change the laws accordingly.

Kathleen Parker's syndicated column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. Her e-mail is kparker@

kparker.com.

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