John Law pursuing Phelps

BILL LANKHOF, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:49 AM ET

The good folk of Richland County, South Carolina, can sleep easier tonight. The blossom of southern youth has been saved.

The one-man crime wave, formerly known as Michael Phelps, could soon be doing his laps around the Boss Hogg County Jailhouse.

The good sherriff, Leon Lott, delivered yet another blow to Phelps' crime sub-culture with the news this week that his department has apprehended two renters of the home where the Olympic swimming star was photographed taking a drag from a marijuana pipe.

Quick. Hide the children. Don't let them see. It's hideous!

Fortunately in Richland County the mere suggestion that someone might've been smoking grass results in all-out manhunts. Presented with the offensive photo, Lott said at the time, that he wouldn't treat Phelps any different because of his celebrity. So Munchee Shacks were busted. All the unusual suspects are being rounded up, including a renter who was there but says he didn't see Phelps inhale. This is called the Rebagliati Defence -- but nobody knows if it works anywhere south of Whistler. The other renter told police he wasn't even at the party, held near the University of South Carolina campus. But maybe that's just the euphoric haze talking. They've now had to hire lawyers to translate.

Now, we already suspected America was going to pot, but this is ridiculous.

Phelps has been personally demonized, he has been told by Kellogg's that putting his picture on their product would defile their pristine corporate image and suspended from his job by the U.S. swimming association.

A Columbia TV station reports that eight people have now been arrested. All of which sounds like either the sherriff's office doesn't have much to do these days or it is treating this Phelps case far differently than it would any other report of a five-month old pot party.

In the latest statistics, from 2006, there were 38 murders in Richland County (pop. 320,677), which makes it at least twice as likely that, compared to living in the GTA, you could be pushing up the daisies rather than picking them. There were 159 reported rapes, 726 robberies and 2,420 aggravated assaults. Not to advocate the use of marijuana but maybe anything that would mellow some of the folks out wouldn't be a bad thing?

This is not to suggest anyone go buy the kids a bong for their 16th birthday with a matching dime bag (do they still call them that, or is my generation showing?) The stuff is illegal and there are ramifications. But the police obsession -- and the abuse of Phelps by the public and media -- seems far in excess of the misdeed.

"I've been waking up to guys yelling into megaphones outside my window at 7 o'clock in the morning," Phelps said. "I've had paparazzi following me from my house to my mom's house. People knocking on the door."

The media and corporate reaction to Phelps' indiscretion smacks of hypocrisy. There isn't a university campus anywhere that can't be found by following the scent of cannabis on party night.

I'm betting that when Kellogg's questioned Phelps "morality", somebody in that boardroom once dated Mary Jane himself. If every American had his job taken away tomorrow for having smoked marijuana in some yesterland, office towers would echo with the sounds of silence.

Just because he took a toke from a bong doesn't make him a pothead any more than it would make a sherriff who takes a swig of bourbon an alcoholic. And, yes, I know alcohol isn't illegal. Phelps, as a public figure, should've known better. But it hardly makes him guilty of raping America's youth culture.

If your kids can survive luminaries such as Fifty Cent, Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears, it isn't likely the sight of Phelps with a bong is going to turn them into potheads.

Phelps let down fans who expected better of him. But he didn't kill anyone, or beat up his girlfriend. He didn't get drunk and drive over someone.

He has never, unless Lott is still building the case, been dog fighting. He is rich. He is a superstar. He is world-renowned.

He is also just 23. A kid. And kids do dumb things. Let's not make it more than that.


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