Today, Sullum and Stimson discuss past drug use by successful political leaders. Previously, they compared drug legalization and decriminalization and debated the federal government's authority to raid local marijuana dispensaries. Later in the week, they'll address drug-related violence and more.
Smoking marijuana isn't a harbinger of ruin
According to the federal government's survey data, at least half of American adults born after Word War II have tried marijuana. Because people may not be completely candid about illegal behavior even in a confidential survey, the true percentage is probably higher. And many of those who have never smoked pot no doubt know people who did, yet somehow emerged unscathed from the experience.
That is the typical pattern for illegal drug users. Again, judging from the government's own data, the vast majority of them, including those who try drugs said to be instantly addictive, never become heavy users. Yet politicians feel constrained to pretend otherwise, lest they be accused of being soft on drugs or irresponsibly encouraging American youth to experiment with illicit intoxicants.
Bill Clinton absurdly insisted that he had smoked pot without inhaling. His successor has implicitly conceded that he used illegal drugs when he was younger, but he refuses to discuss the details. "If I were you," George W. Bush told a Newsweek interviewer in 1998, "I wouldn't tell your kids that you smoked pot unless you want 'em to smoke pot. I think it's important for leaders, and parents, not to send mixed signals. I don't want some kid saying, 'Well, Gov. Bush tried it.' "
Although Barack Obama has been unusually candid about his youthful drug use, he has stuck to the conventional narrative of sin and redemption, suggesting that he was well on his way to death from a heroin overdose because he smoked pot in high school and college. Even so, Obama's comments have attracted criticism from drug warriors. Last fall, former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said, "It's just not a good idea for people running for president of the United States who potentially could be the role model for a lot of people to talk about their personal failings while they were kids because it opens the doorway to other kids thinking, 'Well, I can do that too and become president of the United States.' "
The thing is, that happens to be demonstrably true. Prohibitionists have invented a whole sub-genre of anti-drug propaganda to deal with this inconvenient reality. They argue that marijuana today is so much stronger than it used to be -- 30 times as strong, according to White House drug czar John P. Walters -- that it's not even the same drug as the stuff that Clinton, Bush, Obama, Al Gore, Newt Gingrich and other major political figures managed to smoke without wrecking their lives.
There's little question that average THC content, marijuana's main psychoactive substance, has increased substantially since the 1970s, although not by anywhere near as much as Walters claims. But because the respiratory effects of smoking are the most serious health hazard cannabis poses, increased potency makes the drug less dangerous, allowing people to get the same effect with less exposure to combustion products. The potency argument therefore should be viewed as little more than an attempt to obscure something that most Americans know from their own direct or indirect experiences. Until politicians admit that smoking marijuana is not a harbinger of ruin but a generally harmless rite of passage, they will not be able to have an honest discussion about drug policy.
Jacob Sullum, a senior editor at Reason magazine and a nationally syndicated columnist, is the author of "Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use" (Tarcher/Penguin).
Would you want a president who's under the influence?
It's 3 a.m., and a phone rings in the vice president's quarters. A Secret Service agent answers the phone, listens, and then rushes into the VP's bedroom with the phone in hand and wakes him up.
Agent (placing his hand over the mouthpiece of the phone): Mr. Vice President, the president of Xyzistan has threatened to launch a nuclear strike in 15 minutes. You must respond.
Vice president: Where is the heck is the president? Why isn't he taking the lead on this issue?
Agent: Sir, he's coming down from his heroin high. We tried to wake him up, sir, but he's out of it.
Vice president: Give me the darn phone.
Look, the issue is not whether some politicians fib about prior drug usage because they want to get elected -- they do -- but whether we want our leaders to reflect the best America has to offer. People look to politicians for leadership and to the president as a role model.
We're all fallible. Since the beginning of mankind, there have been and always will be temptations. Those include, but are not limited to, drugs and alcohol. Society's best and brightest -- and whatever you think of their politics, presidential candidates tend to be extremely bright, highly capable individuals -- can experiment with drugs or abuse alcohol early in their lives and get away with it, or nearly so.
But there are still consequences. Ultimately, each candidate had to recover from his experimentation of drugs or abuse of alcohol to become a viable contender for president. The reason is quite simple: Americans don't want to elect a known alcoholic or a drug addict as president, but they are willing to consider a candidate who overcame an addiction or made a bad choice as a youth and learned from those experiences.
We all know people who have abused drugs or alcohol. I used to work closely with an attorney; let's call him "Bob." Bob and I were friends; our families socialized. Our offices were right next to each others'. Bob graduated from prestigious universities. We tried cases against each other, but he never lived up to his potential as a trial attorney. One week I beat him at trial, and his performance was poor. The next week, he passed out during a different trial. It turns out he had been drinking a fifth of scotch a day for 12 years.
He got professional help, fights the urge to drink to this day, and is now a world-class advocate, father and husband. Just think, though, of all the clients he failed prior to getting help.
Here's the point: He chose to abuse alcohol and lived. If he had chosen, say, heroin, he would probably be dead.
Charles "Cully" Stimson was a local, state, and federal prosecutor, a military prosecutor and defense attorney, and deputy assistant secretary of defense. Currently, he is a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).