Gone to pot


Richland County, S.C., Sheriff Leon Lott said Monday he's not going to charge Olympic-champion swimmer Michael Phelps after a photo published in a British newspaper showed the 14-time gold medalist smoking from a marijuana pipe.

That's good news, not because young people should be encouraged to use illegal drugs -- of course they should not -- and not because Mr. Phelps deserves any special treatment due to his "star" status.

In fact, what's been going on in South Carolina was an overreaction to this minor embarrassment which threatened precisely to single out the Olympic swimmer for prosecution, in a matter which normally wouldn't merit substantial police attention, at all.

Since the photo surfaced in the British newspaper News of the World on Feb. 1, Sheriff Lott's department has arrested eight people who attended the party near the University of South Carolina, according to the Baltimore Sun.

Dick Harpootlian, a Columbia, S.C., defense attorney and former district attorney in Richland County, represents one of the men who was at the party and was a renter at the house where the party took place. "There's no question that this would not have occurred the way it did if Michael Phelps was not involved," said Mr. Harpootlian, who oversaw many drug cases as a prosecutor. "It's silly that they've taken eight kids and arrested them like this. I don't think it's a valid use of very limited law enforcement resources."

Under South Carolina law, possession of 1 ounce or less of marijuana is a misdemeanor that carries a fine of up to $200 and 30 days in jail for the first offense. Possession of drug paraphernalia is a $500 fine. In first-offense cases involving young people, convictions are usually expunged after 90 days of probation.

Any prosecution in the case would have depended on coercing testimony from other partygoers, by offering them deals after subjecting them to a flurry of over-charges -- an expensive and despicable undertaking.

Jack Swerling, a criminal defense attorney who has practiced in Columbia for more than 30 years, told the Sun last week, "I would be shocked if this case is handled any other way. I don't foresee any circumstance where jail is even a possibility. ... The same rules should apply, whether we're talking about Michael Phelps or not."

Precisely. Andrew D. Levy, a Maryland criminal defense lawyer and adjunct faculty member at the University of Maryland School of Law, where he teaches criminal law, characterized the beefed-up investigation as "a little silly."

Which describes a lot of today's war on drugs.

Mr. Phelps lost his lucrative endorsement deal with Kellogg's over the matter. Maybe he'll pick up a smaller one from E-Z Wider rolling papers, in exchange.

The sheriff was right to let this one go.

 

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