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Opinion

Michael Phelps doesn't need to apologize

A photo of swimmer Michael Phelps taking a bong hit has been plastered all over the world this week. Phelps released a statement saying that he acted "in a youthful and inappropriate way" and promising that it won't happen again.

There have been a variety of responses to the photo of last summer's Olympic hero smoking marijuana. Some are shaking their heads in disappointment, worried about what message this sends to Phelps' young fans.

Few are pointing out, however, that Phelps is in good company.

The photo strikes another blow to the myth that marijuana smokers are all just lazy couch potatoes. This guy has won more gold medals than anyone in history. In addition to his swimming skills, he's a successful businessman who turned his accomplishments into an enormous public relations platform and money generator. Successful and honorable people who have admitted to occasional pot-smoking are all around us, from Mayor Michael Bloomberg to President Barack Obama.

As someone who has worked on substance abuse and drug policy issues for more than a decade, I don't think Phelps had anything to apologize for. But I give him credit for not vowing to go to rehab. So many times when celebrities are caught with drugs, they give tearful statements and promise to get help. Phelps doesn't appear to have a drug-addiction problem, so there's no reason for him to take up valuable treatment slots when there are many others who do.

While some "experts" are predicting that the Phelps photo could cost him millions in endorsement deals, it could actually humanize him - and make him even more popular with a large section of the public.

Phelps' swimming accomplishments have always been awe-inspiring, but who could relate to a guy who swam five hours daily and had to eat 12,000 calories a day to compensate for the energy he burns off in training?

Seeing a picture of him with his hat on backward taking a hit made me feel like he was someone I could actually talk to. With half of high-school seniors having tried marijuana before they graduate, it's not clear that this photo is really going to disillusion his fan base.

Instead of focusing on what this photo means for or about Phelps. I wish people were talking about how unfair our drug laws are. There has been some progress on acceptance for people who use marijuana, but there are still many laws on the books that cause more harm than smoking the drug does.

Close to 800,000 people were arrested on marijuana-related charges nationwide last year - the vast majority only for possessing small amounts.

One report found that between 1998 and 2007, New York City police arrested 374,900 people for low-level, misdemeanor marijuana offenses. That's more than eight times the number of arrests on the same charges for the previous 10-year period. Researchers also found stark racial disparities in whom NYPD officers arrested for marijuana offenses, with Latinos and African-Americans being charged far more often, despite equal use of the drug between whites and nonwhites.

Once someone is convicted of a drug offense, they can lose college financial aid, food stamps, public housing and, in some cases, even voting rights.

That's money wasted and lives ruined, and for what? Whatever you think about marijuana, and while it may pose its own health risks, there is no question that it is much safer than legal drugs like alcohol and cigarettes. People don't die from marijuana overdoses, and very few people who smoke it become addicted.

Michael Phelps can continue to be a role model. He should take his comments and platform to the next level. He can say simply, "Yes, that was me smoking marijuana, and the laws that ruin people's lives for using marijuana should be debated and changed."

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