COLUMBIA, S.C. – Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said he had no choice but to investigate suspected marijuana use by Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps.

But in the end, deputies couldn’t find enough evidence to charge Phelps, Lott said Monday, though the winner of a record eight gold medals in the Summer Olympics was shown holding a marijuana pipe in a picture taken at a November party in Columbia.

“We had no physical evidence; we had a picture,” Lott told reporters. “We didn’t have enough where we could go arrest him.”

Lott rejected criticism he was grandstanding and wasting taxpayer dollars on a relatively minor drug case, explaining he has “seen people die” from smoking marijuana.

“I don’t care what a dope smoker in California says about the Richland County Sheriff’s (Department). I worry about people here in Richland County who elected me to be their sheriff to protect them.”

Lott said he hopes Phelps, who wasn’t interviewed by investigators, is “learning from this, and I hope he takes what he’s learned from it and gives it to other kids.”

“He’s got one of the most highly publicized mistakes I think you could ever make when it comes to drugs,” Lott said.

In a statement issued later Monday afternoon, Phelps said he was “glad this matter is put to rest.”

“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.”

He said he will “move forward and dive back into the pool, having put this whole thing behind me.”

Phelps had said earlier publicly he was reconsidering whether he would participate in the 2012 Olympics. He landed in hot water after the photo was published: USA Swimming suspended him from competition for three months, and Kellogg’s said it would drop a lucrative endorsement deal.

Olympic officials said while they were disappointed with Phelps’ behavior in Columbia, it wouldn’t affect his gold-medal status because the November party incident occurred during the competition offseason.

Phelps’ Columbia attorney, Bill Nettles, said Monday Lott “conducted a fair investigation.”

“The reason he didn’t get charged wasn’t because he is Michael Phelps,” said Nettles, a longtime criminal defense attorney who is a leading candidate to become South Carolina’s next U.S. attorney. “The reason he didn’t get charged was because there wasn’t any evidence of wrongdoing.”

The marijuana pipe Phelps was pictured holding was recovered Feb. 4, though there was no evidence in or on the pipe to tie it to Phelps, Lott said. He said he could not charge Phelps with possessing drug paraphernalia, explaining there is no such criminal law in South Carolina or Richland County.

Lott said investigators interviewed some witnesses who were at the party the first week in November, though he declined to discuss details. In an article published in The State on Feb. 8, a person who attended the party said a marijuana pipe was being passed among 15 to 20 people, though he didn’t see Phelps use it.

Lott said Monday no one else who attended the party would face charges stemming from the incident.

Lott acknowledged that even if he were able to charge Phelps, he couldn’t extradite him on simple marijuana possession under state law because the charge carries less than a year behind bars. Under state law, simple possession of marijuana carries a 30-day jail sentence or fines and assessments totaling $570.

(Distributed by MCT)

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