A few days before Senator Barack Obama swept the Democratic primaries in Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia, people across the country, picking up their favorite newspaper, were greeted with the following headline:
OLD FRIENDS SAY DRUGS PLAYED BIG PART IN OBAMA’S YOUNG LIFE
In any event, that’s what some readers thought they read. On second glance, they realized their mistake. The headline actually said this:
OLD FRIENDS SAY DRUGS PLAYED BIT PART IN OBAMA’S YOUNG LIFE
Maybe, though, the mistake wasn’t just the readers’, especially the bleary-eyed among them who hadn’t yet had their morning coffee. After all, it wasn’t exactly news that “drugs” had played a part (and only a “bit part” at that) in the adolescence of the junior senator from Illinois. That particular factoid had been on the public record for more than twelve years. And if it wasn’t news, what was it doing on the front page of the New York Times?
The big news, or bit news, about Obama and drugs had been broken by the future Presidential candidate himself, in “Dreams from My Father,” published in 1995, when he was thirty-three years old. In “Dreams,” Obama treats his teen-age chemical indulgences the way he treats pretty much everything else in his coming-of-age story: subtly, with impressive emotional acuity, against a richly drawn personal, cultural, and social background. Ripped from their context like the heart of an Aztec sacrifice, the facts Obama presents are these: He smoked pot during his last couple of years of high school, in Hawaii, and his first couple of years of college, at Occidental, in California. Once in a while, he treated himself to “a little blow.” After his sophomore year, he transferred east, to Columbia, where he took up running (three miles a day), stopped hanging out in bars, and started keeping a journal. Also, he writes, “I quit getting high.” That’s about all. Substance, apparently, became more interesting to him than substance abuse.
But it’s not as if the Times’ nearly two thousand words had nothing to add to this. “Mr. Obama’s account of his younger self and drugs, though, significantly differs from the recollections of others,” the paper’s story teases, as if promising scandal. Is a Perry Mason moment at hand? Not really:
In more than three dozen interviews, friends, classmates and mentors from his high school and Occidental recalled Mr. Obama as being grounded, motivated and poised, someone who did not appear to be grappling with any drug problems and seemed to dabble only with marijuana.
The news here is—what, exactly? That Obama, who now appears grounded, motivated, and poised, formerly appeared grounded, motivated, and poised? That his inner uncertainties, such as they were, were more apparent to himself than to others? That he was marginally less of a pothead than he has made himself out to be?
If this last was the point, it at least shows that times have—to use the past participle of Obama’s favorite word—changed. For a candidate to stand accused of exaggerating his youthful drug use is something new indeed. Yet the overall cultural trend is unmistakable. In 1987, Douglas H. Ginsburg’s disclosure that (as the Times reported) “he had smoked marijuana a number of times after becoming a professor at the Harvard Law School” sank his Supreme Court nomination faster than you could just say no. In 1992, making an early foray into verbal hairsplitting, Bill Clinton said he had “never broken a state law,” meaning that England was where he hadn’t inhaled. By 2000, we were well into the age of the “experimented with marijuana” dodge, with getting zonked spun as a science project. But in 2004 the three leading Democratic hopefuls—John Kerry, Howard Dean, and John Edwards—all acknowledged without quibbling that they’d smoked pot.
As for the two other senators who currently stand a chance of being elected President, Hillary Clinton and John McCain have issued denials, though McCain seemed downright apologetic about it. Asked the question in 2000, he pointed out that he was in a North Vietnamese prison camp by the time pot became the Navy’s weed of choice when the smoking lamp was lit. “Also,” he added sheepishly, “remember my age: sixty-three.” And the current occupier of the Oval Office? Well, George W. Bush announced in 1999 that he had been drug free since 1974.
None of this ought to matter, of course. Voters, rightly, don’t much seem to care. But there is a glaring discontinuity between the lived experience of Americans and the drug policies of their governments. Nearly a hundred million of us—forty per cent of the adult population, including pillars of the nation’s political, financial, academic, and media élites—have smoked (and, therefore, possessed) marijuana at some point, thereby committing an offense that, with a bit of bad luck, could have resulted in humiliation, the loss of benefits such as college loans and scholarships, or worse. More than forty thousand people are in jail for marijuana offenses, and some seven hundred thousand are arrested annually merely for possession. Meanwhile, the percentage of high-school seniors who have used pot has remained steady, between forty and fifty per cent. Nor have the prices of illicit drugs—which would rise sharply if the drug war were having any success—changed appreciably. Indeed, according to the government’s “National Drug Threat Assessment” for 2008, increases in domestic pot production, combined with the continued flow from abroad, point to a future of “market saturation,” which “could reduce the price of the drug significantly.” Meanwhile, potency has “reached its highest recorded level.”
Of all our country’s ongoing wars—poverty, cancer, Iraq, Afghanistan—none is a more comprehensive disaster than the war on drugs. Unlike McCain, Obama and Clinton have at least promised to stop the feds from harassing medical marijuana patients and dispensaries in the dozen states whose laws permit marijuana to be used for medical purposes. But neither has given any indication of a willingness to rescue us from the larger disgrace of the drug war—the billions wasted, the millions harmed, the utter futility of it. On this point, hesitancy trumps hope, and expedience trumps experience.