When Michael Phelps was awarded a record eight gold medals at the 2008 Summer Olympics, it was a moment of great pride for the young swimmer and his country, a cause for celebration and quite possibly the highlight of his life. It also would have been the perfect occasion to smoke weed.

Whether or not Phelps smoked marijuana to celebrate his Olympic achievements is something we do not know, but Americans shouldn’t be the least bit surprised if he did. Nor should we be the least bit shocked that Phelps was photographed smoking marijuana at a party in Columbia, S.C., a scandal that made worldwide headlines. This single moment threatens Phelps’ legacy and could result in criminal charges. Already, the Olympic champion has lost at least one corporate sponsor.

In contemporary America, smoking marijuana is a lot like speeding on the highway — many consider it wrong or dangerous, while still practicing the illegal activity or keeping company with those who do. That such a pervasive and relatively harmless activity like smoking marijuana remains illegal is often compared to the prohibition of alcohol in the early 20th century, when quaint, age-old traditions like heading to the local pub or cocktail parties were suddenly forbidden by law and declared an affront to morality and decency. Prohibition was a farce and everyone knew it. And in 1933, after 13 years, the hypocrisy of Prohibition ended as America sobered up by partying down.

In 2009, it’s time Americans were honest about prohibition once again. Writes Paul Armentano, deputy director for National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), “According to national and federal surveys, nearly one out of two Americans have tried weed … America’s current president said that he smoked marijuana regularly as a young man. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, former Vice President Al Gore, former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and legendary astronomer Carl Sagan all have admitted using marijuana at different times during their lives.”

Despite his tremendous athletic ability, Michael Phelps, the son of a police officer and a middle school principal, remains by all accounts a typical, middle class young man. Even in condemning him, Colorado Springs’ The Gazette seemed to recognize Phelps’ all-American attributes, writing in an editorial, “He was the poor kid from Baltimore who lifted himself with endless, torturous hard work. He was one of us, even if he seemed half-fish/half-man. This homogenized image of Phelps is just a mirage. Behind the facade, a flawed young man was hiding. And this young man likes to party.”

Damn straight Phelps likes to party. Hell, I like to party. And there’s no telling how much fun I might have if I were a 23-year-old Olympic gold medalist worth millions of dollars. If it was reported that Phelps spent his evenings at home completely sober playing Solitaire, I’d be shocked. That he was out partying and smoking weed isn’t the least bit shocking. Phelps isn’t an embarrassment to America as The Gazette and so many other editorials are now suggesting. Phelps is the quintessential young American — warts, weed, and all.

This is not to say that marijuana use should be encouraged, as the consumption of alcohol shouldn’t be encouraged. But contextually, marijuana use is now as much a part of America’s cultural fabric as alcohol consumption, and arguably, the societal dangers of the former far outweigh the latter.

I do not care for marijuana (the harsh, pungent taste clashes with my cigar smoking), but I do like to drink alcohol and enjoy the company of others who do the same. Does this make me a “flawed” person or a bad American, comparable to the current criticism of Phelps? Or is it simply the illegality of the substance — an archaic and asinine legal designation for marijuana — that makes those who enjoy it “flawed?” Are those who break the speed limit “flawed?” Illegality does not necessarily equal moral depravity.

And given the choice between sharing a beer or a joint with a normal, young American of great accomplishment or joining the chorus of self-righteous pundits who are now pretending they’ve never heard of nor done such things, I would gladly choose the company of the partygoer too stoned to make the right decision over the critics who are too stupid to know the difference.

Catch Southern Avenger commentaries every Tuesday and Friday at 7:50 a.m. on the “Morning Buzz with Richard Todd” on 1250 AM WTMA.

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