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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Thank God We're Not Discussing the Michael-Phelps-Smoking-Dope Story!

Is anyone surprised that a 20-something über-athlete millionaire would smoke some pot at a party? My sense is that most people don’t care about this. (I live in Massachusetts, which recently decriminalized possession of less than an ounce of marijuana for personal consumption.)  This is one of those media stories that exists because there's a photo to display - though the Olympian’s lung capacity alone might make a double-hearsay report of the event newsworthy ("Phelps Finishes Off World Marijuana Supply").

“But Phelps is a role model!” some people say. If Phelps is your role model for swimming and now you’re confused and think that maybe you can smoke dope and still win eight gold medals in one Olympics, I say, Go for it. You probably won’t win eight gold medals (or a single silver or bronze) even if you don’t smoke dope, or, for that matter, even if you’re a drug-free teetotaler.  If Phelps serves as a more general role model, then I think we’re all better off knowing that people can succeed in various endeavors without having to be “perfect” - why let false idols rule our lives?

Here’s a hypothetical question. Assume it’s a jailable offense to smoke dope as Phelps has.  Should Phelps go to prison? Why or why not? Now assume it’s a mandatory minimum two year sentence. Is putting Phelps in dry dock a good use of our limited resources? Perhaps the Phelps story might open up public discussion about the so-called "War on Drugs."

Perhaps I'll raise Phelps’s case Friday at The Road to Prison Reform: Treating the Causes and Conditions of our Overburdened System, sponsored by the Connecticut Public Interest Law Journal at the University of Connecticut School of Law. See the program here.

And on that note, be sure to catch the California Correctional Crisis Conference next month, which former PrawfsBlawg Guest Hadar Aviram is involved with.


Posted by Brian J. Foley on February 4, 2009 at 01:29 PM in Criminal Law, Culture, Current Affairs | Permalink

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Glad to see you blogging Brian! To answer your "should Phelps go to prison?" question: my answer in the abstract is no. I don't think anyone should go to prison for smoking pot. But, and I say this without knowing any of the demographics of the county where he allegedly did the deed, if the county sheriff (who the news reports say is tough on drugs) is locking up poor people of color who smoke pot or do other drugs (which is probably the case, given the national stats we know about drug crimes), then yes, Phelps should be too. Just because he's famous, rich, and white doesn't mean he should get any different treatment.

Posted by: David S. Cohen | Feb 4, 2009 2:11:49 PM

I'm just amazed at his stupidity. I could care less about his dope smoking and the whole role model stuff; however, his plan was to win a bunch of gold medals and then cash in by endorsing every product known to the American consumers. In addition, he has a pretty limited window of opportunity to do this cashing-in. If he can't refrain from smoking dope where people with camera-phones are within range for a couple of years, then he deserves to get the boot from the endorsements. It appears that he will keep his very lucrative current endorsements, but he may have lost some future ones.

He plans on going to the next Olympics but he will be older (past his prime) and those event only happen every 4 years. It isn't like he shows his best stuff (his swimming) to the American public every month or even year.

I also suspect that this episode has sped up his expiration date. All in all, it did tarnish his image and right now he is trying to make tons of money off that image.

Posted by: anon | Feb 4, 2009 2:42:29 PM

Hi David! I agree - I am along the lines of "no one should go to prison for this." That said, I am moving toward the idea of a truly individualized look of whether someone should be in prison for any crime for which prison is a possible sanction (there would be "disparities"). There would, though, have to be serious and meaningful efforts to ensure that racism or other suspect class -isms do not play a part in the decision - as we must do in all government actions (though cognizable victims of various -isms should get some consideration). Or, if we decide that everyone who commits a particular crime should go to prison, then let's very seriously limit those crimes to limit the prison sanction. Food for thought.
Anon - perhaps our Olympian can endorse marijuana in Massachusetts?

Posted by: Brian J. Foley | Feb 4, 2009 6:06:05 PM

Thanks for the plug, Brian! Your correctional shindig looks great. I hope many people attend it (and ours).

Incidentally, if you haven't already, you might really enjoy Rob Maccoun's piece about how people have no idea that their state has effectively decrimmed marijuana.

Posted by: Hadar Aviram | Feb 4, 2009 8:17:17 PM

Just say NO to drugs...

Posted by: Why Trust God | Feb 5, 2009 10:34:30 AM

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