When a world-class super-athlete is caught taking a hit off a bong, he’s vilified, demonized, painted as a villain, and his finances are threatened (oh, Kellogg’s). Another world-class athlete, the face of a cancer charity, decides to hawk a brand of beer—even though alcohol has been linked to certain cancers—society shrugs, or gives him the thumbs up, or most likely doesn’t even give it a second thought. Something is wrong here.
For better or worse, our American Idiocracy has come to rely on athletes as national pedagogues. Michael Jordan educated the country about commitment and just doing it. A.C. Green lectured us about sexual caution. Serena Williams and John McEnroe taught us what sportsmanship is—and is not. And Charles Barkley outlined how society should define role models.
So when a single week like this one sees both the Justice Department back states’ medical marijuana laws and a Gallup poll show record-level support for pot legalization, we can look to two superjocks—Lance Armstrong and Michael Phelps—for the key lesson about our absurd drug policy.
This Tale of Two Supermen began in February when Phelps, the gold-medal swimmer, was plastered all over national newspapers in a photo that showed him hitting a marijuana bong. Though he was smoking in private, the image ignited a public firestorm. USA Swimming suspended Phelps, Kellogg pulled its endorsement deal and The Associated Press sensationalized the incident as a national issue about whether heroes should “be perfect or flawed.”
The alleged imperfection was Phelps’ decision to quietly consume a substance that “poses a much less serious public health problem than is currently posed by alcohol,” as a redacted World Health Organization report admits. That’s a finding confirmed by almost every objective science-based analysis, including a landmark University of California study in 2006 showing “no association at all” between marijuana use and cancer.
Alcohol, by contrast, causes roughly 1 in 30 of the world’s cancer cases, according to the International Journal of Cancer. And a new report by the Cancer Epidemiology journal shows that even beer, seemingly the least potent drink, may increase the odds of developing tumors.