Drugs and Deviance

Libertarian Party Convention, Columbus, Ohio, May 1995

"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.

Some drug warriors extend this warning to advocates of drug legalization. New York Representative Gerald B. Solomon, chairman of the House Rules Committee, recently introduced a bill, HR 1453, that would revoke the tax- exempt status of nonprofit organizations, such as the Drug Policy Foundation or the Cato Institute, that "promote the legalization of certain drugs." Solomon tried to justify his attack on freedom of speech by claiming that these "sinister" organizations are run by "seedy" people who seek not only "to justify their self- centered and self- indulgent lifestyles" but also to "influence young people to try and use drugs."

Opponents of the war on drugs generally try to fend off such charges by condemning drug use. Even libertarians will often say that they are defending the right to use drugs, not drug use itself. And it's no wonder, given the outrageous things that the public has been told about drug users.

Consider the response of DEA Administrator Thomas Constantine to critics of drug prohibition who draw a distinction between drug offenders and predatory criminals. "Many people talk about the nonviolent drug offender," he told The Washington Times. "That is a rare species. There is not some sterile drug type not involved in violence who is contributing some good to the community. That is ridiculous. They are contributing nothing but evil."

If we believe the government's survey results- - and as I noted, they are probably on the low side- - some 75 million Americans have used illegal drugs. Constantine would have us believe that every one of these people is a thug and a parasite, "contributing nothing but evil." The claim is so absurd that it is tempting simply to dismiss it. But it is telling that public officials can get away with such reckless mendacity if they happen to be talking about drug users. If the subject were Mormons or motorcycle riders, Constantine would be laughed from office.

The main reason demagogues like Constantine get a free ride is that respectable, productive people are understandably reluctant to stand up and say, "I use illegal drugs, and I'm a pillar of the community." The conspicuous drug users are the ones who are troublesome, whether they are nodding off in a doorway, disturbing the peace, burglarizing homes, or mugging old ladies. These are the people who come to represent drug users in the public mind. Indeed, the news media seem to consider down- and- out addicts automatic experts on drug use, ideal sources for sound bites and op- ed pieces. This is like asking Nicholas Leeson for investment advice.

The tendency to see the least successful drug users as typical is especially common among prosecutors, police officers, and professional counselors, people whose work frequently brings them into contact with drug abusers. A few years ago I debated drug legalization on the radio with a minister from a church in South- Central Los Angeles. In his experience, illegal drug use led only to ruin, and he was quite skeptical when I told him that most people who use illegal drugs do so without significant problems.

Stereotypes about drug users, like other stereotypes, tend to be self- confirming. Like the person who is convinced that all gay men are effeminate, someone who believes that all illegal drug users are anti- social will tend to notice and recall examples that confirm this preconception. The stereotype will persist unless he is confronted by dramatic evidence to the contrary- - if, for example, he learns that a relative or friend is one of "them." That, of course, is one of the arguments for "coming out of the closet." But in some ways it is safer to acknowledge one's homosexuality than to reveal a history of illegal drug use.

Although homosexuals still face hostility in certain circles, that attitude is increasingly considered gauche. Few states still criminalize homosexual behavior, and many jurisdictions forbid discrimination in housing and employment on the basis of sexual orientation. By contrast, hostility to drug users is not only fashionable but downright patriotic. Drug use is illegal in every state, and someone who admits to a familiarity with controlled substances can easily sacrifice his job and his reputation. Furthermore, drug users know that if they are discreet they are not likely to be found out. By abstaining for a while, they can even pass pre- employment urine tests ostensibly intended to screen out people like them. These are powerful reasons to shut up and pee in the cup. They are generally stronger than the desire to challenge misconceptions and provide a model of responsible drug use.

The power of countervailing examples is suggested by a remarkable article that appeared on the front page of The New York in July 1992. Headlined, "Executive's Secret Struggle with Heroin's Powerful Grip," it told the story of a successful businessman who happens to be a regular heroin user. The article began:

"He is an executive in a company in New York, lives in a condo on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, drives an expensive car, plays tennis in the Hamptons and vacations with his wife in Europe and the Caribbean. But unknown to office colleagues, friends and most of his family, the man is also a longtime heroin user. He says he finds heroin relaxing and pleasurable and has seen no reason to stop using it until the woman he recently married insisted that he do so. ‘The drug is an enhancement of my life,' he said. ‘I see it as similar to a guy coming home and having a drink of alcohol. Only alcohol has never done it for me.' "

After noting that many other heroin users manage to be productive citizens, the article declared that "they are flirting with disaster" and cited various hazards of heroin use, without mentioning that almost all of them are created or exacerbated by prohibition. Still, the story offered a striking alternative to the usual portrayal of heroin users, and it may have planted a few subversive thoughts in the minds of readers who had never considered the possibility that illegal drug users could be just like them.

There was a time when that was not such a revolutionary idea. Consider an article that appeared on the front page of The Washington Post in 1978. It was prompted by the resignation of Peter Bourne, Jimmy Carter's chief drug adviser, who was accused of using cocaine at a party sponsored by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. The headline read, "The Drug Set: Pot Smokers of the ‘60s Are No Longer Outsiders." Let me read you some excerpts.

"'You know, it's hard to believe,' said a former antiwar activist turned senator's aide, sitting before a coffee table holding the latest issue of the New Yorker, a formidable law dictionary and a small glass bottle of cocaine. When they talk about official Washington using drugs, they're talking about people like me.' "

He adds:

"These are the people who having been smoking [pot] since the ‘60s. But you're not seeing a drug problem. We're not talking about people who are stoned out of their minds in the office or on pills 24 hours a day. These are people who know what they're doing, who know how to weigh the negative against the positive."

The article also quotes Robert Carr, a consultant to the Drug Abuse Council: "Those who use marijuana and cocaine," he says, "are practically indistinguishable from their nonusing peers."

The author of the article, Lynn Darling, notes at one point that "a number of people agreed to talk to this reporter because she has had experience with the very substances under discussion here."

Several journalists told Darling that they did not think the press should cover the use of illegal drugs by a White House official. "Unless it was proved to me that it had a demonstrable effect on the way he did his job," one said, "it's just not a story. It's their private life."

This article is remarkable for several reasons:

- - It's about illegal drug use, yet its tone is measured and reasonable.

- - The reporter identifies herself as a drug user.

- - The reporter does not feel a need to rebut statements about moderate, responsible drug use with horror stories about drug abuse.

- - And the focus is not on how terrible it is to use illegal drugs but on how unwise it is to get caught. The senator's aide tells Darling: "No one's going to be writing checks for cocaine anymore. From now on, it's going to be strictly cash."

These "pot smokers of the '60s," of course, are contemporaries of Gingrich, Clinton, and Gore. Once again, it seems that you can use illegal drugs without ruining your life, sacrificing your career, or becoming a burden on society. As long as you were born at the right time.

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