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
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
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
By Charles "Cully" Stimson
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
(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.
: Where is the heck is the president? Why
isn't he taking the lead on this issue?
: Sir, he's coming down from his heroin high. We
tried to wake him up, sir, but he's out of it.
: 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
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.
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