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Sheriff: Michael Phelps may be charged with drug crime

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott says he will charge Michael Phelps with a crime if he determines the Olympics hero smoked marijuana in Richland County.

Phelps, who set a record with eight gold medals in the 2008 Summer Olympics, was photographed smoking a marijuana pipe at a November party in Columbia.

The picture was published in the British newspaper News of the World. Phelps apologized Sunday, calling his behavior "inappropriate."

"This case is no different than any other case," Lott said Monday. "This one might be a lot easier since we have photographs of someone using drugs and a partial confession. It's a relatively easy case once we can determine where the crime occurred."

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Possession of marijuana is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 30 days in jail or a $570 fine, plus court costs.

Lt. Chris Cowan told The Associated Press Tuesday that investigators are gathering more information about the photo and did not specify what charge was being considered. He declined to discuss details of the investigation.

Both the University of South Carolina and Columbia Police Departments said they would not pursue charges. It was unclear Monday where the party took place, including whether it was on campus.

Meanwhile, on Monday, Phelps' sponsors -- from apparel company Speedo to luxury Swiss watchmaker Omega -- issued statements calling the incident a "nonissue." The International Olympic Committee accepted his apology.

"We have no reason to doubt his sincerity and his commitment to continue to act as a role model," the IOC said in a statement.

At the University of South Carolina, where Phelps was visiting when the picture was taken, the mood was largely "who cares?"

"It's not a surprise," said India Jones, a sophomore biology major. "He's young, and he is human. They'll probably let him off easy because he owned up to it."

This isn't the first time Phelps has been in trouble following a gold medal performance. In 2004, fresh off his wins in the Athens Olympics, he pleaded guilty to drunk driving in Maryland.

Forgiveness of Phelps could be attributed to how he handled both situations -- admitting up front he did it and apologizing, said Matt Brown, associate professor for sport and entertainment management at the University of South Carolina.

"America is a forgiving society, and he came out and apologized immediately," Brown said. "I think as long as we don't see more pictures coming out and more things coming out that he's been doing this consistently, he'll be OK."

It also helps that many see Phelps as a nice guy. When he was in Columbia, he took time to speak to a class on sports' role in society.

"It was amazing how gracious and how humble and just how helpful he tried to be," said Sid Kenyon, a South Carolina adjunct professor who taught the class. "I can't tell you how impressed I was with his mannerism and just how willing he was to help and do anything that we asked him."

The Phelps story broke not in a sports magazine, but in a celebrity newspaper. Sports and entertainment journalism have been merging for years, Brown said, never more so than in the Olympics, which attracts a wider audience -- including the kind of people who watch celebrity news on "Entertainment Tonight."

"It becomes much more of an entertainment event than a sports event," he said.

This story was supplemented by The Associated Press.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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