Louis Armstrong was alive today, he might send a note to swim god Michael Phelps saying, "Hey Pops, don't pay the press any mind. There's nothing wrong with a stick of gage to help a cat relax. And you deserve it. What you did in Beijing knocked Ol' Satchmo completely out. Here's to us sharin' some shuzzit together someday. Keep up the paddlin' Daddy."
And then, just as their careers were cresting, they got themselves associated with the smoking of marijuana.
Armstrong's bust in 1931, outside Harlem's Cotton Club, resulted in nine days behind bars. When he was released, he was more popular than ever. There was no public apology demanded, or given. Of course, with slower-moving media, many probably missed the story altogether.
Louis didn't stop smoking gage, and he sang its praises throughout his life, even founding the Vipers, a group of musicians who believed in the weed.
"We always looked at pot as a sort of medicine, a cheap drunk and with much better thoughts than one that's full of liquor," Armstrong wrote. "But with the penalties that came, I for one had to put it down, though the respect for it will stay with me forever. I have every reason to say these words and am proud to say them."
Phelps' bust, like all modern gaffes, was everywhere in an instant. The photo of him with the bong blanketed the web (the bong itself appeared on eBay briefly before the site removed it). He was temporarily suspended from competitions by USA Swimming. One of his sponsors severed ties. And he was forced to repent for "regrettable behavior."
Yes, we may expect different behavior from a jazz musician and an Olympic athlete. But for what both bring us in sheer enjoyment, inspiration and hurrahs for our country, shouldn't they be entitled to a little post-game relaxation?
Being at the top of any profession--whether musician or swimmer or CEO of a multi-national corporation--comes with loads of stress. When you're expected to blow 250 high C's in one song or break a world record every time you dive in the water, it takes a toll on body and mind. What's wrong with a joint to help you wind down?Mozart ate cannabis bon-bons. Abe Lincoln loved to "smoke a pipe of sweet hemp." Duke Ellington and Count Basie swung with spliffs. Kerouac, Dumas, Dali, ditto. Ray Charles, Keith Richards, Paul McCartney--all roach 'n' rollers. And there's no point in even starting on reggae. Even the new US president inhaled. Repeatedly. As he said, "That was the point."
But America, whose bi-valve heart pumps Puritanism and progressivism in equal measures, is still outraged by marijuana. America wants the glory its heroes generate, but also wants them to come wrapped in prim, law-abiding packages.
And sorry, this particular law is kinda dumb.
While legalization may never happen (a shame, because a tax on pot could provide much-needed economic stimulus), at least we can be more tolerant of our heroes when they take an occasional toke.
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- Michael Phelps