Find Post Investigations On:
Facebook Scribd Twitter
Friendfeed RSS Google Reader
» About This Blog | Meet the Investigative Team | Subscribe
Ongoing Investigation

Top Secret America

The Post explores the top secret world the government created in response to the attacks of Sept. 11.

Ongoing Investigation

The Hidden Life of Guns

How guns move through American society, from store counter to crime scene.

Have a Tip?

Talk to Us

If you have solid tips, news or documents on potential ethical violations or abuses of power, we want to know. Send us your suggestions.
• E-mail Us


Post Investigations
In-depth investigative news
and multimedia from The Washington Post.
• Special Reports
• The Blog

Reporters' Notebook
An insider's guide to investigative news: reporters offer insights on their stories.

The Daily Read
A daily look at investigative news of note across the Web.

Top Picks
A weekly review of the best
in-depth and investigative reports from across the nation.

Hot Documents
Court filings, letters, audits and other documents of interest.

D.C. Region
Post coverage of investigative news in Maryland, Virginia and the District.

Washington Watchdogs
A periodic look into official government investigations.

Help! What Is RSS?
Find out how to follow Post Investigations in your favorite RSS reader.

Hot Comments

Unfortunately I believe that we are limited in what we can focus on. I think that if we proceed with the partisan sideshow of prosecuting Bush admin. officials, healthcare will get lost in the brouhaha.
— Posted by denamom, Obama's Quandary...

Recent Posts
Bob Woodward

The Washington Post's permanent investigative unit was set up in 1982 under Bob Woodward.

See what you missed, find what you're looking for.
Blog Archive »
Investigations Archive »

Have a Tip?
Send us information on ethics violations or abuses of power.
E-Mail Us »

Notable investigative projects from other news outlets.
On the Web »
Top Picks »

South Carolina Sheriff Pursues Phelps Pot Case

POSTED: 05:53 PM ET, 02/12/2009 by Derek Kravitz

If Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps could have chosen where to get caught smoking some marijuana, it probably would have been someplace other than South Carolina.

The 23-year-old Phelps is under scrutiny as local sheriff's deputies continue to investigate photos of the gold medalist from Baltimore trying some pot with a bong at a November college party at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.

When those photos surfaced in Britain's News of the World newspaper, Phelps was forced to apologize. He lost a lucrative Kellogg Co. sponsorship and was suspended for three months by USA Swimming, the sport's governing body.

But it didn't stop there. A South Carolina defense lawyer, Dick Harpootlian, speaking to the The State newspaper in Columbia, said a male client -- whom he declined to identify -- was arrested along with seven others in a raid Saturday after authorities seized "5, maybe 6 grams of pot" related to the Phelps photo.

"They never asked him, 'Who sold you the pot?' ... They were asking, 'Were you at the party with Michael Phelps? Did you see him using marijuana?' It was all about Michael Phelps," Harpootlian said.

Appearing on "Good Morning America," another attorney for one of the eight arrested, Joe McCulloch, questioned Richland County, S.C., Sheriff Leon Lott's motives.

"It is a fascination, if not an effort, to destroy a public hero," McCulloch said.

South Carolina law is especially harsh for marijuana-related offenses. Possession of one ounce or less of marijuana is a misdemeanor that carries a fine up to $200 and 30 days in jail for the first offense.

If Phelps had been caught smoking a doobie in, say, Massachusetts, it might be a different story. Voters there passed a law last year decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana and many police departments around the state said their offices would simply not bother ticketing people they see smoking, according to the Boston Globe.

And in California, conflicting local, state and federal marijuana laws has allowed some low-level users and distributors to operate freely.

By Derek Kravitz |  February 12, 2009; 5:53 PM ET
Previous: How Much Did Madoff Family Know? | Next: Despite Pledges, Package Has Pork; D.C. Agency Probed in Water Report; Judges Guilty in Pa. Kickback Scheme


Please email us to report offensive comments.

Sheriff Leon Lott's motive may be to push decriminalization. I can't think of any other endgame to his flogging this like it were a major case.

Posted by: timscanlon | February 12, 2009 7:09 PM

Time for the Justice Department to investigate this Sheriff's Department. Wonder if all it's drug bust evidence is accounted for. Thank God, Phelps isn't black; he'd have already been shot trying to escape.

Posted by: georgepwebster | February 12, 2009 7:27 PM

The sheriff is pumping his resume for re-election with this *free* publicity. "He's tough on crime!" will be his re-election campaign slogan.

The actual result may be a rational look at unreasonable criminalization of marijuana use and possession of it in small amounts.

All-in-all, I think our nation's law enforcement priorities should lie else where.

Posted by: JOHN314 | February 12, 2009 7:37 PM

What the Justice Department doesn't realize is that this country is full of Sheriff Lotts. Marijuana prohibition is the chief national tool of oppression.

Posted by: rme222 | February 12, 2009 7:41 PM

Go solve some cold cases.

Better yet, have the SC Legislature enact a law making county sheriff departments responsible for food safety. Salmonella has killed more people than cannabis this year.

Posted by: dobiaslaw | February 12, 2009 8:49 PM

Is Phelps above the law? If not, then it's police's duty to investigate and charge Phelps just as they would any other American citizen. Last I checked, swimming medals don't get anyone, including Phelps, a free out-of-jail pass.

Posted by: Mickey2 | February 12, 2009 9:09 PM

Considering that most Americans feel Marijuana should be legal, Leon Lott is seizing this opportunity to steal our tax dollars while he can. What easier way for a Sheriff to cash in and get fame during a depressed economy?

I guarantee if this was Lincoln's era, Lott would be a slave master.

Posted by: coh516 | February 12, 2009 9:14 PM

This case is just as crazy as DA Mike Nifong in Durham, NC going after Duke students for rape. It constitutes prosecutorial misconduct. It is so totally absurd that a photo published in a British tabloid (The News of the World) cause such grief for an Olympic champion on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

It does show how crazy marijuana laws are. It shows how vicious tabloid newspapers can be and how vicious a southern sheriff can be. It is a call for action to change these crazy drug laws. These archaic laws are responsible for 5,600 deaths in Mexico last year.

Posted by: alance | February 12, 2009 9:24 PM

Why isn't Obama, Michael Bloomberg, Bill Clinton (and other politicians who have publicly admitted to their use of illicit drugs, including cocaine) not arrested?

Posted by: CyberPost | February 12, 2009 9:25 PM

Posted by: joefotalatte | February 12, 2009 9:34 PM

What an embarrassment our drug laws are to our reputation in the world. Just as with the metric system, universal health care, the death penalty and so many other issues, it's like we're stuck in a time warp, with the Taliban in charge of our culture and our legal system.

Why are we even fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan? Perhaps it's because we're jealous that they have a more modern civilization than ours.

Posted by: B2O2 | February 12, 2009 10:43 PM

MJ is illegal,so prosecute EVERYBODY who has been seen,photographed,or admitted to useing it.OOPS,there goes a decent slice of Congress,and the general population.
Hey Sheriff Bozo,don't try to make a name for yourself by picking on a tall poppy.

Posted by: logicolin | February 12, 2009 11:03 PM


Stop the presses -- an athlete has been caught smoking pot!! This is news?!? I say, he’s just a kid!! We’ve all made mistakes. Leave Michael Phelps alone!!! (After you listen to this parody and pass it around like a bong to everyone you know!!) See “Because Michael Phelps Got High” at
See more parodies at

Posted by: thincaboutit | February 12, 2009 11:27 PM

I'll be very surprised if someone does not assassinate this megalomaniac of a sheriff, what a scumbag.

Posted by: j_normanton | February 12, 2009 11:28 PM

This local Columbia paper responds to Lott by getting high... check it out!:


Posted by: MTWTFS09 | February 13, 2009 11:03 AM

Leon Lott has a much higher arrest record for marijuana busts than cocaine or crack, hmmm...priorities. He denied there was a gang problem until he was forced to bust up a gang meeting following several crime watch calls to his department. He had no participation in the largest cocaine bust in his county.

Posted by: watcher5 | February 13, 2009 11:09 AM

This half-wit redneck sherriff is up for re-election and I'm guessing he's needing some publicity. So, now this back-woods hillbilly has just crawled out of his trailer after the tornado swept through and quoted on the 6:00 news "it was pandalerium, we could have been killed or even worse" I've seen it a million times being a southerner myself. This guy, Sherriff Lott, needs to concentrate on the rampant crime in Richland County, and not worry with some college kids with 5-6 grams of pot. Ths man is wasting the tax payers money for busting in on these college kids for 5-6 grams of weed. That's 1/8 of an ounce, what we used to call a dime bag. We're talking a $200.00 fine and up to 30 days in jail, a misdemeanor. Sure it was illegal, but isn't there some way more heinous crimes that this joke of a sherriff should be fighting? Like, keeping drunk drivers off the streets, or stopping a sting of larcenies, or maybe even catching/investigating murders, rapes, or other crimes that involve more than smoking a litte weed. Sherriff Lott is a joke, and has made a laughing stock of himself and his department. So, Sherriff where's Boss Hogg and Roscoe P. Coletrain, Cletus, and Enos? This is some Dukes of Hazard stuff here. Richland County South Carolina should ask Sherriff Lott for his badge!

Posted by: nerveracker | February 14, 2009 5:47 PM

Im outraged by this, he is being wrongfully accused, and having his rights taken away. Everyday these things happen to everyday people that just sit around and smoke weed all day, but Michael phelps broke an olympic record, he didn't flash out that he did but only with a stupid picture, that for all we know could have been a water pipe for tobacco. There is no tangible proof that it was marijuana unless he was physically searched and seizured by a police official, so maybe if anyone reads this and disagrees with me you can reply to this, but honestly I believe what is happening to him is illegal and maybe they should think about how he is basically more of a hero then all these parents thinking he's a "pot head" and thinking people should be put to jail for smoking marijuana. I personally think that he should not be put to jail.

Posted by: Propot | February 15, 2009 7:43 PM

Post a Comment

We encourage users to analyze, comment on and even challenge's articles, blogs, reviews and multimedia features.

User reviews and comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions.

characters remaining


© 2010 The Washington Post Company