Pot charges against Olympian Phelps go up in smoke
Stephen C. Webster
Published: Monday February 16, 2009

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The investigation into Olympian Michael Phelps' bong rip has officially smoked out.

The most decorated Olympic athlete in history will not face criminal charges after being photographed smoking out of a water-pipe many claim contained marijuana. The Sheriff pursuing Phelps' case, South Carolina officer Leon Lott, announced the investigation's end Monday afternoon at a nationally-televised press conference.

After making eight arrests and promising to follow-up on possible legal penalties for Phelps, speculation on and criticism of Richland County, South Carolina Sheriff Leon Lott has run rampant over the airwaves.

"I think they should leave him the f--k alone," writer and comedian Mario Cantone told New York Magazine. "I think it’s appalling, I think that that sheriff is like that guy that Dom DeLuise played in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, you know, he’s just not stopping and he’s trying to arrest everybody."

Luckily for Phelps, that's not the case.

Since news broke of the eight individuals arrested and questioned about the November party at a house near the University of South Carolina where Phelps was photographed smoking from a bong, public reaction has been less supportive of Sheriff Leon Lott.

The arrests were made after the alleged owner of the bong reportedly tried to sell it for $100,000 on eBay. Professional poker player Zachery "Carter" King, winner of the 2008 Poker Stars World Championship of Online Poker Main Event, was fingered as the owner. In an Internet post he denied attempting to sell the smoking utensil, which is allegedly custom-made and worth over $500.

Lott’s decision to pursue a criminal investigation is now drawing questioning of why he even bothered.

"I think the general consensus is that it is a waste of taxpayer money and resources if that’s what he’s focused on," said Paul Blake, publisher of Columbia’s alternative weekly, the Columbia City Paper.

The publisher's sentiment was echoed in a report by the Wall Street Journal on Monday as the paper pointed out the growing perception of "overkill" in pursuit of the Olympian.

"Joseph McCulloch, a lawyer for one of the eight, said the deputies ordered one home's three occupants to the ground, seized computers, cellphones and cameras, and later questioned the three extensively about Mr. Phelps," reported the Journal. "Dick Harpootlian, who represents another of the arrested men, said deputies appeared to be interested primarily in gathering evidence against Mr. Phelps."

Blake said Lott’s investigation into Phelps could be part of a wider publicity effort to bring attention to himself.

"He is an elected official. I know he might have aspirations to run for governor but I think basically from the people I’m talking to that it’s backfiring," Blake said, adding that it all comes down to perspective. "I think he just thinks he’s doing the right thing."

Phelps was dropped by sponsor Kellogg's after the photo was published, sparking protests and boycotts of the snack-maker's products.

"Once these cops track down that bong, they just might be able to prove that Michael Phelps smoked the marijuana—which could bring up to a $200 fine," wrote Hamilton Nolan at Gawker. "So you see the necessity of the operation. Cut the man some slack."

Students for Sensible Drug Policy at Kent State University organized a boycott and letter-writing campaign to support Phelps and spread the message of marijuana legalization into the broader media.

"We don't condone or condemn any type of drug use," said Wallis, president of the Kent Drug Policy Alliance, in a report by student-run Kent News. "We just feel the policies surrounding drug use are wrong and unfair."

Yet, in spite of the persecution of a young man many legitimately see as a hero who made a mistake, the Phelps drama has sparked a national conversation on marijuana laws. Increasingly, under the Obama administration, the New York Times sees many with "hope for a shift in drug policy."

Much of this hope centers on President Obama's promise to allow individual states to decide whether to allow terminally ill patients access to medical-grade cannabis. But a new glimmer of "hope" presented itself with news that Obama had chosen Seattle, Washington Chief of Police Gil Kerlikowske to head the Office on National Drug Control Policy.

The anticipated selection of Chief Kerlikowske has given hope to those who want national drug policy to shift from an emphasis on arrest and prosecution to methods more like those employed in Seattle: intervention, treatment and a reduction of problems drug use can cause, a tactic known as harm reduction. Chief Kerlikowske is not necessarily regarded as having forcefully led those efforts, but he has not gotten in the way of them.

"What gives me optimism is not so much him per se as the fact that he’s been the police chief of Seattle," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, in the Times report. "And Seattle, King County and Washington State have really been at the forefront of harm reduction and other drug policy reform."

To supporters of Phelps and marijuana law reform at-large, Obama's selection of Kerlikowske isn't just a beacon of change because of his position on "harm reduction" policy reforms. Under his guidance since becoming police chief in 2000, Seattle officers have avoided making any marijuana arrests at Seattle's famous yearly "Hempfest," an outdoors celebration of cannabis culture that often sees copious quantities of the plant smoked in plain view of law enforcement.

"... [There's] one more thing [Obama] can do," wrote Ethan Nadelmann in a December Wall Street Journal editorial marking the anniversary of the repeal of alcohol prohibition. "Promote vigorous and informed debate in this domain as in all others. The worst prohibition, after all, is a prohibition on thinking."

This video is from MSNBC's News Live, broadcast Feb. 16, 2009.

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