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Peyton Manning Bud Light quip illustrates hypocrisy of marijuana stigma

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You can't blame Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning for wanting a Bud Light. Maybe it was his way of celebrating Denver’s playoff win. Perhaps he wanted a beer to relax after an emotionally and physically draining day at the office. It's possible he needed it to cope with the ridiculous questions he's forced to answer as an NFL quarterback, including the query that preceded his quip, some sports-talk-bait about his neck and future with the Broncos.

Whatever his reason, the point is that Peyton Manning really needed a beer after his game against the San Diego Chargers and the fact that he admitted this (while shrewdly name-dropping Bud Light, Official Beer Sponsor of the NFL) was enough to send the room into uproarious laughter. And it WAS a good joke, one whose subtext we all understood.

It was also a perfect illustration of the differences in perception between alcohol and marijuana use.

Perhaps you heard, on January 1 retail sales of small amounts of marijuana to adults over the age of 21 became legal in Colorado, the state where Peyton Manning plays his home games. Recreational sales figures were estimated to be around $5 million dollars in the first week alone, with all profits going to what Republicans consistently cite as the most precious and endangered of American institutions, the local business. Without risking the political capital that comes with being exposed as a bald-faced hypocrite, social conservatives are taking the "think-of-the-children" approach to stigmatizing what's now perfectly legal behavior in Colorado.

In a column so sanctimonious and poorly considered I initially mistook it as satire, Denver Post writer John Meyer penned an anti-pot editorial yesterday for The Cannabist, the Post's new blog dedicated to round-the-clock marijuana coverage.

“I am getting so tired of reading about how wonderful Colorado’s legalization of marijuana is, and how unfortunate it is that the ‘stigma’ associated with pot use will remain,” Meyer wrote on a pot news website that was recently launched by the company he works for. Meyer's editorial is ostensibly in support of drug testing policies in sports that prevent athletes from using marijuana even in states like Washington and Colorado where it's legal, but it's written with the dispassionate logic of a dad who just found a stash hidden in his son’s sock drawer. The line "The whole thing breaks my heart and makes me wonder what kind of a place my kids will grow up in" -- attributed to one of Meyer's Facebook friends --pretty much sums the whole thing up. What's remarkable about the piece, then, is the insight it provides into the rationale of those who would continue to stigmatize marijuana use simply because of their own subjective experiences, attitudes and biases.

Meyer's arguments are barren to the point of comedy. He cites the American Medical Association in claiming that “cannabis is a dangerous drug and as such is a public health concern.” But at a recent AMA conference, the organization reaffirmed its position that more medical research into marijuana is needed, something that’s impossible thanks to federal drug laws that classify it as a schedule I controlled substance. Taking issue with a recent column by the Post's Benjamin Hochman in which former NBA player David Harrison said it was unfair for athletes to risk their careers, as he did, over recreational pot use, Meyer writes, “Athlete role models ought to be promoting health and fitness, especially now when obesity is at epidemic proportions.” I agree with this point, but it’s also worth noting that the pothead voters in the state Meyer sounds so deeply embarrassed to be a part of are the least-obese in America, and have been, for three straight years.

But the galling hypocrisy of those, like Meyer, who would shame marijuana users is exemplified in Manning's joke. As proponents of Amendment 64 vociferously and successfully reminded Colorado's voters, alcohol is an addictive, costly, and deadly drug that's warmly accepted in many facets of American life, sports chief among them. In 2010, the Wall Street Journal reported that Bud Light paid nearly $1.2 billion dollars for a six-year sponsorship of the NFL. Ads for this physically-harmful, mind-altering substance are inescapable when sitting around the television to watch sports with the family; the ubiquity of beer commercials is third only to that of McDonald’s and Viagra. Rather than trouble themselves over an athlete’s off-the-field choices, perhaps Meyer and those of his ilk should worry about the tacit connections between beer and sports that are already being methodically constructed in the minds of their young children.

Like alcohol and many legal prescription drugs, marijuana has addictive properties that can create psychological dependency in heavy users. And like those substances, marijuana is also used responsibly and in moderation by millions of people without adversely effecting their lives. Just as Peyton Manning can occasionally enjoy a Bud Light while also having the one of the greatest seasons in the history of professional football, recreational marijuana users can also toke up from time to time while simultaneously achieving great success in their profession.

Near the end of his column, just before he writes, “We ought to work hard to make sure the ‘stigma’ of marijuana use remains,” Meyer says, “We ought to be telling kids to pay no attention to those misguided athletes and their media accomplices who defend and promote the use of marijuana, which I regard as a tragedy.”

For a good laugh, substitute the word alcohol for marijuana in that sentence. Then remind yourself that Bud Light paid $1.2 billion to be the punchline in Manning's joke.

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