"Several months ago Newt Gingrich got into trouble by speculating about drug use among White House staff members. Appearing on NBC's Meet the Press, Gingrich was asked to elaborate on a connection he had drawn between the Clinton Administration and the 1960s counterculture. "You've got scattered throughout this Administration counterculture people," he said. "I had a senior law- enforcement official tell me that, in his judgment, up to a quarter of the White House staff, when they first came in, had used drugs in the last four or five years."
Leading Democrats were outraged by this remark. "He's lost it," said Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank. "It smacks of McCarthyism," said New York Representative Charles Schumer. White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta called the charge "absolutely false." He said Gingrich had "no evidence, no facts, no foundation, just basically smear and innuendo."
Yet Gingrich's claim is actually quite plausible. Consider the evidence from the Federal Government's National Household Survey on Drug Abuse. According to Gingrich's law- enforcement source, "up to a quarter" of Clinton staffers had used an illegal drug within the previous five years when they started work in early 1993. To assess this claim, we can take a look at the household survey for 1988, when 32 percent of 18- to- 25- year- olds and 23 percent of 26- to- 34- year- olds reported illegal drug use during the previous year. Given the relative youth of Clinton's staffers and the likelihood that self- reports understate drug use, "up to a quarter" is a pretty good stab at the share of White House staffers who used illegal drugs (mostly marijuana) in the five years before they were hired.
But so what? Why did Gingrich think it worth noting that members of the Clinton Administration have the sort of drug- use histories you'd expect for people of their age? And why did the Democrats react so hysterically to such a bland observation?
The controversy is even more puzzling when you consider that the president, the vice president, and the speaker have all acknowledged smoking marijuana. Gingrich had this to say about his illegal drug use: "That was a sign we were alive and in graduate school in that era." Somehow, an activity that was no big deal in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s had become shameful and scandalous by the late ‘80s.
Although Gingrich excuses his illegal drug use by implying that most of his fellow students also smoked pot, marijuana use was probably less common when he was in graduate school than it was in 1988. The government's survey data don't go back to 1971, when Gingrich got his Ph.D. But the survey shows a steady rise in drug use from 1974 until 1979. Although reported drug use declined after that, in 1988 it was still considerably higher than in 1974. So if Gingrich can get away with saying that he was just going along with the crowd, so should a twenty or thirtysomething Clinton staffer. Yet if there was one thing that Gingrich and his Democratic critics seemed to agree about, it was that drug use by people hired to work in the White House could not be lightly dismissed.
This double standard illustrates how politicians manipulate the concept of deviance in the service of the war on drugs. When Newt Gingrich, Bill Clinton, and Al Gore smoked marijuana, they were joining many other young people engaged in harmless experimentation. When students of a later generation do exactly the same thing, they are drug abusers in need of treatment. Statistically, today's pot smokers may be no less normal than Gingrich, Clinton, and Gore were. But that does not stop prohibitionists from depicting them as weirdos and outsiders.
The underlying assumption is that illegal drug use carries baggage. For Gingrich, it signifies countercultural views. In the commercials of the Partnership for a Drug- Free America, it represents irresponsibility and social isolation. To police and prosecutors, it means violence and lawlessness. All of these people assume that the drug user's deviance extends beyond his taste in mind- altering chemicals.
Now, it may be true that, on average, people who use illegal drugs are different from people who don't. People who are willing to break the drug laws may be more likely to hold anti- establishment views. They may be more likely to break other laws. They may be more likely to flout social conventions or shirk responsibilities. But these differences, if they exist, are artifacts of the drug laws, because the legal status of a drug helps determine the sorts of people who are attracted to it. More important, they are group tendencies, not consistent characteristics of drug users. The stereotypes do not deal with averages or probabilities. They make sweeping generalizations: if you use illegal drugs, you must be a hippie, a criminal, an outcast, a leech.
Challenging these stereotypes is risky. In 1990, two researchers at U.C.- Berkeley, Jonathan Shedler and Jack Block, published an article in American Psychologist that reported on their longitudinal study of "Adolescent Drug Use and Psychological Health." Tracking a group of children from preschool until age 18, they found that "adolescents who had engaged in some drug experimentation (primarily marijuana) were the best- adjusted in the sample. Adolescents who used drugs frequently were maladjusted, showing a distinct personality syndrome marked by interpersonal alienation, poor impulse control, and manifest emotional distress. Adolescents who, by age 18, had never experimented with any drug were relatively anxious, emotionally constricted, and lacking in social skills."
Shedler and Block did not conclude that a little pot is just the thing to help children grow up right. Rather, they found that "psychological differences between frequent users, experimenters, and abstainers could be traced to the earliest years of childhood and related to the quality of parenting received." They observed that "problem drug use is a symptom, not a cause, of personal and social maladjustment" and that "the meaning of drug use can be understood only in the context of an individual's personality structure and developmental history."
The study caused an uproar among "drug treatment" and "drug education" specialists. One said it was irresponsible to portray "dabbling with drugs" as "part of normal adolescent experimentation." Another worried that kids who had decided not to use drugs would now be seen as "a bunch of geeks and dorks." The reaction to Shedler and Block's report- - which had nothing to do with the quality of their work- - indicates how important it is to control the definition of "normal," to decide who is "in" and who is "out." In effect, the study's critics were insisting that it is drug users, not abstainers, who are deviant.
The importance of such definitions is also apparent in a DEA publication called How to Hold Your Own in a Drug Legalization Debate. "Many who advocate legalization are attempting to "
normalize' the behavior of drug- taking," the manual warns. Elsewhere it says "one of the basic contentions of legalization is that drug users are essentially normal people." Not so, says the DEA. "Drugs undo the bounds that keep many seemingly normal people on an even keel."
Like the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, drug users may seem normal. Don't be fooled.