Drugs  
comments_image Comments

Pothead Al?

Al Gore may be in marijuana hot water. A new biography of Gore, which Newsweek magazine was going to excerpt in their January 18 issue, claims that Wooden Al smoked considerably more dope than he has publicly admitted. Lacking a sex scandal, this is the kind of scandal the media may sink its teeth into, like a stubborn bull dog. And unfortunately we'll all be the worse for it.
 
 
Share
 
 
 
 

It's late in the evening as I sit at my desk. My work done after a long day, I reach into my drawer and pull out a little plastic bag and start rolling. Satisfied with my handywork, I reach for my lighter, which is decorated with a van Gogh painting -- "Crows in the Wheatfield," 1880 -- a souvenir of my last visit to Amsterdam. A thought arises: If van Gogh smoked pot, maybe he wouldn't have cut off his ear.I take a drag, lean back in my Aeron chair and imagine Al Gore stoned. And for a moment I smile, because this takes some imagination. For years, the Veep has been known as Al the Wooden, a hard-working, boring, nerdy, stiff, eager-to-please afterthought to Bill Clinton's charisma and impulsiveness.Al Gore stoned. The woodenness becomes fluid, the shoulders relax, the man is more comfortable in his body. The fear of Dutch Elm disease recedes. All and all an improvement, don't you think?My thoughts have turned to Al tonight, not out of idle speculation, but because he may be in marijuana hot water. Part of my day has been spent reading about a potential new scandal about Al's past. The allegation, dear God, is that Al may have been a pothead.The emerging story goes like this. Newsweek magazine either dropped or postponed an excerpt of a biography of Al, which was scheduled to run in their January 18 issue and was written by Newsweek's own Washington reporter William Torque. Part of the excerpt details Gore's pot use, which is considerably more extensive than he has publicly admitted. The main source is an old friend of Gore's, John Warnecke.Interestingly, the story was broken by an online site, DRCNet's StoptheDrugWar.org ( www.drcnet.org/wol/gore/html), which posted an interview with Warnecke after revealing that the book excerpt had been pulled. Remember Matt Drudge broke a big story the last time Newsweek held back from publishing important news. The result: the whole world knew about sex in the White House between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.The Warnecke interview, conducted by Adam J. Smith, advanced the story, which was then covered by a range of media outlets. Salon's Jack Tapper interviewed Warnecke; Smith appeared on Fox News; Alex Kuczynski did an item in the January 24 edition of The New York Times; and so on and so on. Newsweek is saying it will run the excerpt of the book, "Inventing Al Gore: A Biography" (Houghton Mifflin), closer to the publication date, which also has been pushed back to March.Recently, the Tennessean, where both Gore and Warnecke worked in the 1970s, also tackled the story, interviewing dozens of reporters who had worked there over the past 30 years. They were unable to confirm or disprove Warnecke's allegations, but they did provide some biographical dirt on Gore's former colleague. It turns out Warnecke is currently living in San Francisco on disability with his two children. His wife committed suicide six years ago and he is said to have recurring depression. The Tennessean reported that Warnecke said his therapist encouraged him to tell the truth and that he was willing to take a lie detector test. Warnecke also said he would vote for Gore and loved him like a brother.Whether or not it ever can be confirmed that Gore was a regular pot smoker, the vice president is certainly no stranger to the herb. His son was reportedly tossed out of St. Albans, the toney D.C. prep school, for smoking the stuff, and his daughter, a trusted campaign advisor, is an admitted former pothead. Maybe there is a Gore pot gene. Or maybe like father, like kids.In his interview with Smith of DCRNet, Warnecke said: "I have firsthand knowledge that he [Al Gore] did not tell the truth. Al Gore and I smoked regularly as buddies.... We smoked in his car, in his house, in his parents' house, in my house. We smoked on weekends. We smoked a lot." In a 1988 interview, Warnecke told The New York Times that he smoked pot with Gore, but only a few times. He said he didn't tell the truth then because "he was put under a lot of pressure to lie."Warnecke has now come forward, according to the Smith interview, because he's "been under a lot of stress. My conscience has been killing me ever since then. I actually came forward months ago when Bill [Torque] interviewed me for the book." According to Smith, Torque's book quotes both named and unnamed sources about Gore's drug habits.Warnecke also made clear in the interview that he came forward because of lies and hypocrisy: "The drug laws in this country are ruining the lives of hundreds of thousands of young people, mostly poor young people who don't come from privileged backgrounds and wealthy families. It doesn't make sense that we have a war on drugs. It doesn't work and the politician's refuse to talk about it." Warneke added that he has been sober for 21 years. "I wish Al would come clean," he said. "I wish that all politicians would come clean and deal with this in a rational manner. Look at all the damage the silence is causing."Gore has previously admitted to smoking marijuana. He told the Bergen Evening Record that he had smoked marijuana in college and in the Army but that he has not used it in 15 years. Smith writes that Gore's admissions "fall well short of the type of regular, even chronic use described by Warnecke." Warnecke says that Gore used marijuana regularly for four years after he said he stopped.The problem, as Warnecke underscores, is that if Gore was a pothead he can't admit it. There is a powerful convergence of forces, including conservatives, the mainstream media, the drinking culture, the anger at the '60s -- pick your reason -- that does not allow politicians to come clean about marijuana use. Remember Supreme Court nominee Douglas Ginsburg, who withdrew because of admitted marijuana smoking? Current political discourse allows for extremely casual experimentation with pot far in the past, but does not permit regular usage at any time. Gore, who has been known to waffle on other subjects, may be in trouble here. Lacking a sex scandal, drug use is just the kind of issue the media may sink its teeth into, like a stubborn bull dog. And unfortunately we'll all be the worse for it.The Gore problem may become a Bush problem too, unless the two candidates' use of drugs cancels each other out. Bush has tried very hard to claim the boozer position -- a well known, comfortable one in our society -- the near alcoholic who mends his ways. But Bush also grew up in the '70s and was an admitted party animal. Rumors persist that Bush used cocaine, although a Warnecke-type witness has yet to surface.Our country's so-called war on drugs, and the prevailing hypocrisy on drug use, is one of the great destructive forces of our time. I know, you've heard this. It's all been written about before, but it needs to be repeated over and over again until there is a change.Of all the politically convenient bad policy positions the Clinton-Gore administration has made, and there are many, the unbending war on drugs is the most offensive. Clinton and Gore have been fierce proponents of a policy that led to the arrest of 682,885 people on marijuana charges in 1998 alone, 88 percent of whom were arrested for possession. That represents an increase of more than 300 percent since 1980. The Center on Juvenile Crime and Justice ( www.cic.org) reports that the incarcerated population of the U.S. will reach two million on or around February 15, 2000, many for victimless crimes.Imagine the destruction that has been wrought by the war on pot smoking, an act that is not only victimless but, unlike alcohol, has few negative consequences. Imagine how many careers, families and relationships have been wrecked, how much productivity has been lost and how much new crime engendered by so many people forced to spend time in prisons where conditions are far from safe and truly hardened criminals exercise enormous influence. It's hard to imagine a situation where the so-called solution does much more harm than good.Since 1980, the U.S. drug fighting budget has soared from $1 billion to more than $17 billion. This huge and growing budget supports a range of influential beneficiaries of U.S. drug policies, such as drug enforcement agencies who have greatly enlarged their staffs; police departments who have raised money and collected goodies from the arbitrary seizure of drug offenders' property; the drug-testing industry, which is fighting hard to intrude into every aspect of our lives; and the prison industry, whose influence has grown with the tremendous increase in incarcerated men and women.The U.S. government is out of touch with its fellow democracies and West European allies on many issues, from children's rights to the mass application of the death penalty. But drug policy may be the most obvious policy difference among the U.S. and its allies. The Netherlands is the obvious example of alternative policies. Pot smoking is legal there and the Dutch have made their coffee shops a mecca for the stoner portion of the population, as well as a huge attraction for tourists. Yet, despite the Dutch's flexible policy, according to drug policy critic David Morris, "Our young people use drugs at a higher rate than do the Dutch."The rest of Europe isn't far behind Holland either. The developing philosophy in Europe is harm reduction -- treating drug abuse as a health problem and being pragmatic about the inevitable use of drugs, rather than trying to eradicate them. Under a 1994 law, Germany allows local governments to permit drug possession for personal use. In Switzerland, according to Newsweek, a court overturned a prison sentence given to a man convicted of selling 1,000 ecstasy pills. The court ruled that this "'soft drug' is used mostly by 'socially integrated people' and 'doesn't lead to criminal behavior.'"The U.S., of course, has taken the opposite approach, thanks in part to the often clueless drug czar, Barry McCaffrey, who is firmly at the helm of the drug war. As Bob Scheer, a syndicated columnist and contributing editor of the Los Angeles Times, points out, McCaffrey, a retired general known for his harsh policies in Central America, "is unencumbered by prior familiarity with the medical aspects of drug use or methods of prevention or treatment." Among other major blunders and unforgivable mistakes, McCaffrey will likely be remembered for the gaffe he made during a brief visit to Amsterdam. The drug czar blurted out that the Dutch murder rate was twice what it is in the U.S., when in fact the U.S. rate is 4.5 times higher. He must have thought the coffee houses were producing natural born killers. Naturally, McCaffrey refused to visit the Dutch coffee shops and see their policy in action.Scheer adds: "The evidence is overwhelming that alcohol is far more damaging than marijuana. In the U.S. more than 100,000 alcohol-related deaths are reported each year; not one officially recorded death has been attributed solely to marijuana use. A University of Toronto study even showed that marijuana smoking poses far fewer risks on roadways than does alcohol. Lumping marijuana with illegal hard drugs is a continuing absurdity that leads young people to distrust all drug messages."One of major ramifications of the drug war is that it is racist and targeted mainly at urban ghettos. Only 13 percent of drug users are black, according to Scheer, but they make up a majority of those imprisoned on drug charges. More than 400,000 people are currently in prison for drugs, many for personal use, making this, according to Scheer, "One of the largest human rights violations in the world. Yes, because the very idea of jailing people on the basis of personal behavior for a victimless crime represents a basic violation of freedom."So here I sit comfortably stoned, thinking about Al Gore's plight and the ramifications of the drug war. Around the country, tens of millions of people are sharing my experience, have shared it or will share it soon. This is quite a demographic, the stoner cohort. If the many influential, highly educated people who smoke pot decided to challenge the laws that make it illegal, they could wage a movement not unlike the civil rights movement. They could lobby; they could commit civil disobedience; they could organize a full-fledged campaign against the drug war. With the drug war, we are faced with a hypocrisy so huge that it is rendering our society schizoid and reinforcing the worst kinds of racial and class discriminations. That could change if we insisted that the prevailing destruction is far too costly. If we stood up to the vested interests of drug cops, prisons guards, construction lobbies, military men, media companies and public personalities like Peter Jennings and Katherine Graham, who do the drug war's bidding by spreading lies and propaganda. Instead, hundreds of thousands of people, many poor and not influential, rot in jail, get rejected from jobs and, in many cases, can't vote because our political system won't face the truth and deal honestly with the ravages of alcohol and the relative safety of pot.For Al Gore, John Warnecke is a loose cannon, potentially an obstacle for a virtually lifelong pursuit of the presidency. For me, if what he is saying is true, Warnecke is a brave man, the kind of hero who takes us one small step further toward ending the war on drugs. Who knows, maybe something miraculous will happen. The public will realize that stoner Al is a much better bet than boozer G. W. when it comes to national priorities and ending the drug war.At a press conference on February 8, 1999, Gore spoke about the spiritual problem of drug abuse and about the need for more positive opportunities for young people. "If young people feel there is phoniness and hypocrisy and corruption and immorality, then they are much more vulnerable to the drug dealers," he said. Maybe Al is ready to come clean and talk about how someone who smoked a lot of pot can be president of the United States. Because under the right circumstances there just isn't anything wrong with taking a toke.