OLYMPIC swimmer Michael Phelps isn t going to be prosecuted for whatever he was doing with that marijuana pipe last November in South Carolina. That shouldn t come as a shock to anyone. The shock should be that it was ever a possibility, and for that we have Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott to thank.
By now, everyone is familiar with the photograph of Mr. Phelps that surfaced showing the winner of the most gold medals in Olympic history with his mouth attached to the business end of a bong at a student party he attended at the University of South Carolina.
Mr. Phelps, who is 23, made the compulsory contrite media appearance using what we ll call the Alex Rodriguez defense. That s where you look sad, apologize, say you were stupid, young, showed bad judgment, learned from the experience, and won t make that mistake again but don t admit specifically what you did or didn t do.
Kellogg s, which had one of Mr. Phelps biggest endorsement deals, dumped him and the USA Swimming organization banned him from competition for three months.
But that wasn t enough for Sheriff Lott, who vowed to charge Mr. Phelps if he found evidence that a crime had been committed. Sheriff s deputies raided the home where the party had been held kicked in the door with guns drawn, according to an attorney and arrested eight people. Seven were charged with possessing small amounts of marijuana, which carries a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a fine of $575. It wasn t surprising that two months after the party they couldn t find sufficient evidence to charge Mr. Phelps.
What did Sheriff Lott expect? He didn t have any physical evidence, and while students might sell a compromising photo of the swimming star to a tabloid, they weren t likely to give him up to the police.
The sheriff claims he didn t have a choice. Ignore it and be criticized or address it and be criticized, he said. But there was a third choice. He could have issued a statement deploring Mr. Phelps alleged drug use but admitting that he couldn t base charges on a photograph.
Drugs such as marijuana are illegal for good reason, and neither Mr. Phelps nor anyone else should flaunt the law with impunity. But all Sheriff Lott s investigation and drug raid proved was something everyone already knew: if police in any college town across the country raid a house shared by students, there s a pretty good chance they ll discover something illegal. And all the sheriff accomplished was to make himself look foolish and trivialize the very real battle to combat drug use by teens and young adults nationally.
That, and push up the price of the notorious bong, which the sheriff reported was sold by its owner for $100,000. Now there s a feather for the sheriff s cap.