Michael Phelps and the Great Bong Brouhaha

Here's what usually happens to a college kid who's caught with a small stash of marijuana: the police give him a good scare, let him stew in a cell for a few hours and make him take a class on the evils of drugs. If he keeps out of trouble for six months, the record is wiped clean. In most college towns, the police don't even bother to go after weekend smokers (dealers are another story). If cops chased down every kid who took a bong hit at a frat party, the jails would be full and the lecture halls empty. Half the professors would wind up in the clink, too.

Now here's what happened when a photo, taken in November, surfaced of swimmer Michael Phelps with a bong to his lips at a University of South Carolina party: on the morning of Feb. 7, police used a battering ram to smash through the front door of the house in Columbia where the party had taken place three months earlier. "Freeze, motherf–––ers!" the cops allegedly yelled as they rushed in, guns drawn. They handcuffed and hauled away the students inside and brought dogs to sniff the house for drugs. That same morning, the police raided another house where students suspected of attending the Phelps party lived.

The day's take, according to defense lawyers: less than a gram of marijuana—or, as the search warrant repeatedly put it, "marihuana"—at one house, and about six grams at the other. They also found the bong Phelps was holding in the photo. Seven students were arrested and charged with possession. Defense lawyers say four of them weren't at the Phelps party.

The melodramatic bust was cartoonishly out of proportion to the alleged crime, and the local sheriff's case against Phelps has already fallen apart. The police dropped the charges for lack of evidence (he never admitted to smoking anything), and it's unlikely the students who were rounded up will face trial. But Kellogg's, Phelps's multimillion-dollar sponsor, has let him go, apparently because they think he's no longer fit to be a role model. All this tumult over a wayward photo that impolitely disturbed our nation's uneasy "don't ask, don't tell" relationship with a drug that is illegal but ubiquitous.

From the moment the picture leaked, Phelps fell subject to the iron laws of absurdity that govern the rise and fall of American celebrities. And in Richland County, S.C., the law is Sheriff Leon Lott. Blond and photogenic, the theatrical ex–vice cop lives to bring down drug offenders and get his picture in the paper for doing so. He has appeared on "America's Most Wanted" and as a young cop emulated Don Johnson's character on "Miami Vice." Locals have a saying that the most dangerous place in town is between Lott and a TV camera. It is also thought not to be a good idea to get in the way of the armored personnel carrier he acquired, nicknamed "The Peacemaker." It has a .50-caliber machine gun mounted on top.

The university and the city of Columbia police wanted nothing to do with Lott's flimsy case against Phelps, and the popular sheriff was lampooned in the local press. But one local leader encouraged him. Dr. Lonnie Randolph Jr., a Columbia resident and president of the state NAACP, urged Lott not to back down. Just because Phelps was white and famous didn't mean he should get a pass. "Any type of drug, the sentence is always worse when it's an African-American," Randolph says.

Randolph's point is well documented and unarguably true. It also has nothing to do with the Phelps case. This is the American way with splashy scandals. Everyone rushes up to claim a piece of the action. For Sheriff Lott, the Phelps fallout was about the law. For Randolph, it was about colorblind justice. And for the Kellogg's corporation, which paid Phelps huge sums to sell sugary cereals to elementary-schoolers, it was about Protecting The Children.

Kellogg's says it didn't drop Phelps; it just decided not to renew his contract. But the nation's proud, unrepentant stoners weren't buying the official line. They called for a boycott of the company. "Kellogg's has profited for decades on the food tastes of marijuana-using Americans with the munchies," read a petition on The Huffington Post. "In fact, we believe that most people over the age of twelve would not eat Kellogg's products were they not wicked high."

In the end, Phelps will dutifully complete the mandated cycle of regret and redemption, culminating in cautionary speeches to school kids and a big check to a rehab center. The public will forgive, but mostly they will forget. Just as they did before. In November 2004, when Phelps was 19, he was arrested for driving under the influence. He quickly got out in front of the story in a contrite sit-down with Matt Lauer. His sponsors then, including Visa, PowerBar and Speedo, stood by him. None canceled. The sports world praised him as gutsy. The lesson from the culture to the children could not be clearer: Don't smoke pot. Try not to drive drunk.