- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A sheriff in South Carolina said he will not charge Michael Phelps with drug possession despite a photo that surfaced showing the swimmer smoking marijuana at a college party in November.

“Having thoroughly investigated this matter, we don’t believe we have enough evidence to prosecute anyone that was present at the November party,” Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said Monday. “Michael Phelps and I agree that something positive needs to come from this incident, and that is a message of not using drugs. He can speak on this from his perspective. My perspective is that the law pertains to everyone, and our drug laws are to be enforced.”

The decision not to arrest Phelps essentially ends an affair that began when a British tabloid on Feb. 1 printed a photo of the 14-time gold-medal winner using a marijuana pipe, commonly referred to as a bong. He was at the University of South Carolina to appear at a football game and speak to a class.

Phelps quickly apologized for “inappropriate behavior” but never specifically acknowledged doing drugs. He was suspended for three months by USA Swimming, avoiding a longer ban because marijuana is not a banned substance when athletes aren’t competing. Kellogg’s said it would not to renew its sponsorship of the Baltimore-based swimmer.

Phelps, who won a record eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics last summer and is expected to return for the 2012 games in London, issued a statement Monday, again expressing regret for his behavior and suggesting he was eager to return to training.

“I’m glad this matter is put to rest,” he said. “But there are also some important lessons that I’ve learned. For me, it’s all about recognizing that I used bad judgment, and it’s a mistake I won’t make again. For young people especially - be careful about the decisions you make. One bad decision can really hurt you and the people you care about. … I will move forward and dive back into the pool having put this whole thing behind me.”

Phelps also found himself in trouble shortly after winning six gold medals and two bronze at the 2004 Athens Games, when at age 19 he was arrested and pleaded guilty to drunken driving. He apologized and was sentenced to 18 months’ probation.

After the party photo appeared, Lott said he would investigate. As many as eight people were charged with drug-related offenses in the past week and were questioned about the party, according to Richard Harpootlian, an attorney for one of the students who rented the apartment where the party was held. Harpootlian, a former prosecutor, said it was unusual for a sheriff’s office to devote resources to these kinds of drug possession cases.

Lott, who was first elected Richland County sheriff in 1996, has been part of a number of high-profile drug-related busts and other sensational cases in his career. As a sheriff’s lieutenant in 1987, Lott told an Associated Press reporter that a bust of major league pitcher LaMarr Hoyt had nothing to do with Hoyt’s athletic status.

“A lot of people may think we focused on him because he was a professional ballplayer and had a lot of notoriety,” Lott said. “That wasn’t it.”

In 2002, nine students from Benedict College in Columbia, S.C., were arrested on various marijuana charges by the sheriff’s office. Among those students were three males who were football players for the 2001 season.

“They are not your typical college students,” Lott said at the time. “They are criminals going to school.”

In 2006, Lott exhibited photos to local media that he said showed several Marines making gang signs. The photos were produced after the arrest of four Marines who were reportedly recruiting local teens into the Crips, a nationally known street gang. Lott said the photos were proof of gang activity in Columbia.

On Monday, Lott defended his most recent actions.

“As a cop, my responsibility is to enforce the law, not create it or ignore it,” he said. “Marijuana in the state of South Carolina is illegal. and I am obligated to enforce the law - again - equally, fairly and without personal bias. … Our message has to be loud, clear and consistent: Don’t do drugs.”

c Correspondent Steve Miller contributed to this report.

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