Drug Use by Political Candidates Isn't a Deal Breaker, But Hypocrisy on the Issue Should Be

Now that the climate for political candidates has eased on personal drug use, we should focus on punishing elected officials who still believe in the drug war.

At last week's debate in the race for Manhattan District Attorney, two of the three candidates admitted to cocaine use. When the candidates were asked if they used any illegal drugs besides marijuana, both Cy Vance and Richard Aborn admitted to trying cocaine in the past.

We seem to have come a long way from when Douglas Ginsberg was bumped from consideration for a Supreme Court position because he had tried marijuana in the 70's. Now it is almost impossible to find a presidential candidate who has not tried marijuana. It has become so commonplace for elected officials to admit marijuana use that the question has progressed to whether candidates have tried an illegal drug besidesmarijuana.

President Obama broke ground as a candidate when he wrote openly about not only using marijuana, but trying cocaine when he was in high-school. I can't remember a presidential candidate admitting to using a "hard drug". Obama's drug use clearly had no negative impact with voters. I believe his honesty helped him by humanizing him with both young voters and baby boomers. Voters appreciated some straight talk compared to President George Bush refusing to answer questions about his "youthful indiscretions" and Bill "I never inhaled" Clinton. Ironically, the candidate who suffered the most damage from Obama's past drug use was Hillary Clinton, when Bill Shaheen, Clinton's New Hampshire co-chair, had to step down after going after Obama for his past drug use.

Another high-level elected official who admitted to cocaine use and received a public shrug in response was Governor David Paterson, who admitted to cocaine use days after he became governor following Eliot Spitzer's resignation over having patronized a prostitute. Governor Paterson has recently taken heat for a range of reasons, but his cocaine use is notably not one of them.

Now we have two candidates running for District Attorney of Manhattan, one the of the most powerful law enforcement jobs in the country, admitting to cocaine use. I predict it will not be a major issue and it shouldn't be. The reason past cocaine use by Obama and Paterson and Vance and Aborn use has not been a huge problem for them is that they don't have hugely hypocritical political views on substance abuse. All four of these elected officials/candidates have advocated for alternatives to prison for low-level drug offenders. President Obama has stated he wants drugs to be treated more as a public health than a criminal justice issue. Governor Paterson worked for years to reform New York's draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws. Vance and Aborn both opposed the Rockefeller Drug Laws and Aborn is calling for a debate on decriminalizing marijuana.

The problem for voters is when there is hypocrisy. The reason the Spitzer prostitute scandal was so damaging is because he was actively prosecuting prostitution at the same time he was enjoying the services of prostitutes.

Hypocrisy is what bothers me. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is currently running for reelection. When asked years ago if he had smoked marijuana he said yes, and even added that he enjoyed it. Yet under Mayor Bloomberg, New York has the shameful distinction of being marijuana arrest capital of the world. Last year 40,000 New Yorkers were arrested and jailed on low-level pot possession charges. More people have been arrested on marijuana possession charges under Mayor Bloomberg than any elected official in history!

It is encouraging that past drug use by candidates and elected officials are being discussed more openly and voters are less judgmental. What we need now is for voters to punish elected officials who are willing to ruin other people's lives with arrest and incarceration for doing similar things in their lives.

Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance Network.
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