In what must be the worst piece of timing ever in his career, Michael Phelps had his bong-toking “gotcha” moment on the same day that it was revealed that 17-year-old Gemma Thoms died of an ecstasy overdose at the Big Day Out concert in Perth.

Ms Thoms is reported to have taken three tablets after she saw police searching for drugs at the entrance to the event.

At least Phelps — who won a staggering eight gold medals at the Beijing Games — had the intelligence to openly admit what happened, stating, “I’m 23 years old, and despite the successes I have had in the pool, I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, not in a manner that people have come to expect from me. For this, I am sorry.”

It’s become almost obligatory for anyone caught with illicit drugs to make some kind of grovelling apology like this and suffer the subsequent public humiliation. Perhaps the only people who can get away with taking drugs, and even have their stature increased by doing so, are rock stars. Seriously, think about how cool Keith Richards would be if he’d never taken any drugs. About as hip as Rolf Harris.

Now, you might think that’s all well and good. In that case, you’d be in lock step with the official line on drugs. You probably applaud the “tough on drugs” rhetoric that cascades endlessly from those well-known paragons of virtue, politicians, tabloid journalists, religious leaders and shock jocks. And you must stand and cheer when you see the latest anti-drug campaigns with their ominous warnings about casual drug use.

Indeed, WA Premier Colin Barnett, showing all the sensitivity, intelligence and lack of grammar we have come to expect from politicians from the West noted: “This Government will be bringing in legislation relating to drugs and we will take a tough line on drugs for the simple reason to try and stop tragedies like that happening. I hope particularly young people are starting to get the message that drugs kill.”

No. The message young people are getting is that drugs are cool, the girl was unlucky and that Barnett is a goose. And by “young people”, I mean everyone under 45, who remain openly dismissive, laughing when they are told they should be to panicking.

Look, the best Rugby League player in Australia, Andrew Johns, admitted to using recreational drugs. The best AFL player, Ben Cousins, did the same. Now perhaps the greatest Olympic athlete of all time has been caught on camera with a bong. So when your kids see a pontificating politician or a dire anti-drug advertisement that tells them if they take so much as one puff of a marijuana cigarette, then they will inevitably end up in a gutter, their lives in ruin, they, quite rightly, just don’t believe it.

Young Australians would like some plain talking on drugs. They, just like you, don’t like being patronised. Your children, as well as mine, deserve to live in a society that can speak plainly about difficult social issues.

The “Just Say No” crowd, as they puff on their cigarettes and down another scotch, have never answered this question: why do so many intelligent people across all strata of society take drugs? Just how many? The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s 2004 National Drug Strategy Household Survey found that one in every three Australians aged 14 years and over had used marijuana/cannabis at some time in their lives. Do the math — that’s about 4 million of us (including Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott).

So if you’re scared that any change in drug laws or to the official hardline attitude to drugs will lead us to a society saturated in illegal drugs, then isn’t that exactly what we have now?

Look — this is not an argument for the decriminalisation or legalisation of illegal drugs. Rather, it is, in the wake of the Michael Phelps “scandal” an appeal for the official line on drugs to more accurately reflect the realities of life for young Australians. This is the only way drug use can be reduced. Because whatever we are doing now sure ain’t working.

Here’s one fact no one can run away from: just like Gemma Thoms, one night, your children will be offered drugs. How they respond depends on what they know.

So do you want your kids to be smart or do you want them to be ignorant? Your call.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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