LOYAL OPPOSITION: Politicians on Drugs

Issues arise in odd ways in political campaigns. Someone planted the seed that Texas Gov. George W. Bush should be asked whether he ever was part of the Coke Generation. Now there's not only a national hubbub over W's wild or not-so-wild youth, but a discourse on drug policy too. The obvious question: If W as a twentysomething partook of a controlled substance and now stands within spitting distance of the White House, what then to make of the Bush-backed drug laws that would place a young adult in the slammer for possessing minuscule amounts of drugs? Despite all the crybaby whining about the intrusive media, rumormongering and gutter politics, Snortgate has generated a decent -- as these things go -- debate on drug matters.While W twisted, other Republican pols fessed up and called for reevaluating the current laws. New Mexico's Republican Gov. Gary Johnson talked about his recreational use of grass and coke in college and pronounced the current war on drugs a failure, noting that the courts and prisons are crammed with people arrested for holding small stashes. Why not regulate drugs like alcohol, he asked, and then hold people responsible for behavior under the influence?Warwick, RI's Mayor Lincoln Chafee, a Republican running to replace his father, U.S. Sen. John Chafee, acknowledged he'd used cocaine during his college years and smoked pot in his post-college years. ("I had three choices -- lie, which was not an option, or evade it, and receive the consequences of that, or be honest," Chafee explained. "And I chose to be honest.") Chafee, too, used the occasion of his confession to advocate considering drug decriminalization. In Newsweek, legal writer Stuart Taylor -- last seen on the national scene championing Kenneth Starr -- noted that Bush's dilemma (to tell or not to tell) should cause the nation to weigh revising "the draconian drug-sentencing regime that has packed prisons with nonviolent, small-time drug offenders -- mostly poor and nonwhite -- and helped send the number of Americans behind bars soaring above 1.8 million."Bush deserves no sympathy for the fix he's in. As of this writing, he has dated his no-to-coke reply to 1974, which sounds a little fishy to me since the heady days of the cocaine era occurred several years later. But my question for the Governor would be: Did you ever sell? (Bush and his competitors are vying for a job that comes with the power to destroy the planet; these are not out-of-bounds queries. The candidates, of course, have the right to take a pass and see how that silence flies with the voters.)Let's take a nostalgic look back at the Disco 70s. The cocaine culture was one of commerce. Users were always looking for the right connection. Once a pipeline was found, one consumer would often buy extra to peddle to friends. Sometimes you had a supplier; sometimes a buddy did. (Before you ask, I tried cocaine once. In a magazine office. Snorting lines off a framed photograph of the Beatles. The rush made me more hyper than usual and caused my nose to itch and run for days. I was not tempted to experience again this combination of anxiety and hay fever.)Perhaps Bush couldn't bring himself to provide a definitive statement on cocaine because that would be a gateway admission, one that would open the door to other dicey topics. His circumlocutory reply -- we boomers have to share with our children the wisdom derived from the mistakes of our youth but we should not disclose the specific mistakes -- was the sort of bull no teenager would buy. Still, grant W credit for supplying an opening to those who have long argued the war on drugs is hypocritical. Unwittingly, he became their poster boy.Elizabeth Dole also exploited Bush's first crisis, but in a different fashion. As the media closed in on W, Dole pumped up the volume on her antidrugs spiel. She accused the Clinton administration of being soft on drugs, claimed the President has not used the bully pulpit to scare kids away from drugs and blasted the administration for cutting the budget for drug interdiction and being indifferent to the flow of drugs through Mexico. As a snide Washington Post editorial noted, Dole was wrong on all counts: Clinton has mounted an antidrug advertising campaign, the interdiction budget is up and arrests have been made in Mexico. Not that this means the Clinton war on drugs is any more successful than the Bush war on drugs, the Reagan war on drugs or the Nixon war on drugs. But Dole's attack on the Clinton efforts illustrate how easy it is to be a crusader in the war on drugs: You merely have to open your mouth.Apparently, The Washington Post editorial board is not very influential in the Dole household, for its rebuke didn't prevent Dole from continuing her silliness. Last week, as she tried to ride the momentum of her third-place finish in the Iowa straw poll, Dole called for a new war on drugs, saying she favored zero tolerance. But what does zero tolerance mean? About a third of Americans -- 77 million -- admit they have used illegal drugs. Should they all be chased down and busted? Should more taxpayer money be tossed at trying to stop a $60 billion a year industry? And -- let's go back to first principles -- why do so many Republicans who claim they want to limit government believe citizens should be free to abuse tobacco and alcohol, but cannot use marijuana, even for medicinal purposes?The lack of depth of Dole's thinking on this front was reflected in a remark she made at a GOP fundraiser at the Washington state estate of Thomas Stewart (a Republican funder who was fined $5 million in 1998 for violating campaign finance laws). As GOPers downed hamburgers and baked beans, Dole said, "I yearn to be the Pied Piper who leads this country in the drug war." Pied Piper? Storybook check. Mr. Piper was the fellow hired to rid the town of Hamelin, Germany, of its vermin. He did so. But when the town leaders refused to pay his fee, he returned and led away the children of Hamelin. This is Liddy Dole's role model?

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