In the minds of a lot of folks (mostly from earlier generations), smoking marijuana is not much different from shooting heroin, or snorting cocaine: it’s all drugs. Of course that’s not the case. In truth, marijuana causes less harm to a person’s health and state of mind—and to society as a whole—than alcohol, but it’s controlled as ruthlessly as much more harmful substances.
It isn’t only law enforcement agencies bringing the hammer down on pot-smokers. Just look at the case of Michael Phelps. The mainstream media, USA Swimming, and Kellogg’s all piled on the condemnations in an effort to appease outraged and disappointed fans. Fans that took away the wrong message from “the bong hit heard ’round the world”: not that you can win 8 Olympic gold medals and still enjoy the occasional toke—but that even the best and brightest can be brought down by our silly, archaic marijuana laws.
In the sports world, the Michael Phelps controversy was anything but unusual. While his indulgence may have generated more headlines than the actions of a lesser-known sport star would have, it was certainly not the first time a successful athlete had been raked over the coals for allegedly using marijuana. In fact, as we noted earlier, Phelps was not even the only athlete to generate pot-related headlines on Super Bowl Sunday 2008. Just four months prior to the big game, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Santonio Holmes, who scored the game-winning touchdown and was named Most Valuable Player, had been deactivated by his team and fined $10,000 after he was arrested for having a small amount of marijuana in his car. In 2008, the National Football League (NFL) imposed a similar one-game suspension on New England Patriots running back Kevin Faulk, who pled guilty to marijuana possession charges after an off-duty cop caught him with a few marijuana-filled cigars at a nightclub. He also lost two game checks as a result of his off-the-field indiscretion. In all, Faulk’s financial punishment for this minor act of possession was approximately $300,000!
More famously, after failing repeated NFL-mandated drug tests for pot, Miami Dolphins all-pro running back Ricky Williams announced his decision to retire from football, albeit temporarily, rather than participate in a league that prohibited his off-field use of marijuana. (Williams stated that he used cannabis therapeutically to treat symptoms of social anxiety.) The star athlete faced a virtual nonstop torrent of public and media criticism for his decision. Of course, had he just gone along with the status quo and consumed alcohol when he wished to relax—like all of the “good” NFL players do—there would have been no disciplinary action, no media outcry, and no reason for the all-pro running back to have even considered retirement.
Brad Miller, at the time a center for the Sacramento Kings in the National Basketball Association, also discovered the detrimental consequences of using marijuana to relax. In 2008, the league suspended him for five games after he tested positive for marijuana for the third time. This suspension cost him $693,000 in lost salary. In an interview with the Sacramento Bee following the suspension, Miller explained that he smoked pot to alleviate stress and to help him get to sleep. “It obviously wasn’t the right thing to do,” he said, “but it was helpful to my mental state.”8 Miller further acknowledged that he had begun using marijuana more frequently after making the decision to reduce his consumption of alcohol.
Professional athletes, perhaps more than any other group of individuals, understand and appreciate the value of being in peak physical condition. Their livelihoods depend upon them performing to the absolute best of their abilities. If they believe that relaxing with cannabis is less detrimental to their bodies than drinking alcohol, then what logical reason do professional-sport leagues have for prohibiting this option? Perhaps athletic associations, and the public, will ponder this question in the future.
8. Sam Amick, “Kings’ Miller Vows He’ll Rebound after Suspension,” Sacramento Bee, July 18, 2008.