Mixing equal parts genuine outrage and political calculation, major elements of the drug reform movement have begun a national boycott of cereal giant Kellogg over its treatment of Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps. Phelps was famously caught holding a bong in a photograph that surfaced last week, leading Kellogg to refuse to renew his endorsement contract.
In a statement last week, the Michigan-based Kellogg said Phelps' behavior was "not consistent with the image of Kellogg." Oddly enough, Kellogg did not have a problem with Phelps' 2004 conviction for drunk driving. As recently as last fall, Kellogg's was touting its partnership with the hero of the Beijing Olympics.
"Michael's commitment to encouraging healthy lifestyles, especially among children, is in line with our many programs that educate consumers and promote good nutrition," said Brad Davidson, president of Kellogg North America. "He demonstrates that winning is not just about the glory that comes with gold medals, but that it's also about good sportsmanship, eating right, working hard and being your best."
Kellogg did not respond to Drug War Chronicle calls and emails this week requesting comment.
As the Phelps affair rocketed through the media -- it has been the subject of countless mass media reports, sports columns, and blog postings -- anger over Kellogg's treatment of the talented swimmer percolated through the drug reform community, as well as among marijuana aficionados everywhere.
"Kellogg's dismissal of Phelps is hypocritical and disgusting, and our members are angrier than I've ever seen them," said Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) executive director Rob Kampia. "Kellogg's had no problem signing up Phelps when he had a conviction for drunk driving, an illegal act that could actually have killed someone. To drop him for choosing to relax with a substance that's safer than beer is an outrage, and it sends a dangerous message to young people," he said.
"Kellogg is telling young people that drunk driving is okay, but using a social relaxant that's safer than beer gets you fired," Kampia continued. "That's not just outrageous, it's potentially lethal. We all know that boycotts are difficult to pull off, but the 100 million Americans who've made marijuana this nation's number one cash crop represent a lot of buying power -- buying power that Kellogg may wish it hadn't alienated."
MPP is by no means alone. In a coordinated effort, groups including the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), and StoptheDrugWar.org have endorsed the boycott.
And it isn't just the "pro-pot lobby," as some media have referred to the reform groups, that is upset. Kellogg was so inundated with calls complaining about its decision to dump Phelps that it had to set up a special phone line to handle them all. The Kellogg Phelps line was getting so many calls it was listed above the line for dealing with questions about salmonella-tainted peanut butter products.
''If you would like to share your comments regarding our relationship with Michael Phelps, please press one to speak to a representative,'' said the recording. ''If you're calling about the recent peanut butter recall, please press two now.''
Boycotts are iffy things; their success depends not only on mobilizing consumers to act, but also on the willingness of the target to be influenced. The groups involved in the boycott said they understood the chances of persuading Kellogg to reverse its decision were not great, but that helping Phelps regain his lucrative endorsement deal was not the only reason for the action.
"We are trying to bring attention to the fact that Michael Phelps has committed an act that millions and millions of Americans have committed," said Amber Langston, SSDP eastern region outreach director, who noted that about 25,000 people had signed on to the group's petition -- begun before the Kellogg announcement -- urging that Phelps not be barred from Olympic competition. "He's still a hero, he's not a bad person, and he doesn't deserve to be punished. Our students have really mobilized to let Kellogg know how we feel."
The Phelps bong brouhaha and the South Carolina arrests of students attending the party where he was photographed could have a silver lining, Langston said. "Those arrests were completely ridiculous, but some good could come of all this by bringing attention to the fact that people are being needlessly punished. Phelps should not be arrested, and neither should the people who were there with him."
Langston may be on to something. Media coverage of the affair has been remarkable in that it has sparked more coming out of the closet as pot smokers than ever before and notable for the mocking tone about the hand-wringing over Phelp's bong photo and marijuana in general.
"This has struck a nerve like never before," said DPA's Ethan Nadelmann. "It is a case of overreach that provides an opportunity for the movement," he said. "When you look at the overwhelming majority of responses to this, it was give me a break, we have a president who smoked pot, enough with this hypocrisy. They are trying to say this sends the wrong message to the kids, but this is a guy who brought home a dozen gold medals."
Kellogg's decision to dump Phelps provided a rare opening for the reform movement, said Nadelmann. It's easier to pressure a corporation than a government, he noted.
"One of the challenges we face in drug policy reform," said Nadelmann, "is that we don't often have the option of targeting corporations doing bad things because we are mostly opposed to government -- not corporate -- policies. But this is an easy case. Also, Kellogg is a very prominent company, and it is helpful to be able to go after a visible target. And to be able to say that millions of Americans will no longer be turning to Kellogg when they have the munchies is a laugh line, but it's also true."
"The boycott call gives us a venue to really put the issue in perspective and talk about why marijuana prohibition is harmful and counterproductive," said MPP communications director Bruce Mirken. "It's a way to put the issue out into the public discussion. Nobody would care if this guy was photographed holding a martini or a bottle of beer, yet there is all this uproar despite there being no dispute that alcohol is the more dangerous drug."
And it's working, Mirken said. "We're a bit blown away by the intensity of the media attention around this. We've been doing radio interviews literally all day, and we have more scheduled for tonight," he said Wednesday. "Even if we don't change Kellogg's position -- and we know that effective boycotts are difficult -- this gives us a huge opportunity to educate the public about the fact that the laws don't make any sense."