The recent flap over illegal drug use by White House staffers is a powerful illustration of how Drug War piety and Drug War hypocrisy are inseparably intertwined. Both the Clinton administration and its Republican critics expound an official policy of "zero tolerance" toward drugs while making allowances for their own "experiments" and youthful indiscretions with controlled substances.
The current controversy arose after Secret Service agents testified before Congress that at least 21 Clinton White House staffers had used drugs including marijuana, cocaine, or LSD within a year prior to being granted security clearances. Normally, such behavior would be grounds for automatic rejection, but according to the Secret Service, the White House intervened and set up a special mandatory testing program for the employees (since 1986, all White House employees have been subject to random drug testing). According to Clinton Press Secretary Mike McCurry, nine of the 21 remain, none in "top" positions. New allegations, however, by a retired FBI agent implicate "senior" staff.
On one level, the spectacle is more entertaining than the Summer Olympics–watching politicians squirm is good sport, especially in an election year. More seriously, however, the episode highlights the fact that elected officials and their appointees continue to hold themselves above and apart from the laws they impress on the rest of us. It also underscores the confused–and confusing–logic at the heart of the War on Drugs. At least when it comes to pols, "Just Say No" really means "Just Say You're Sorry."
"The president has a zero tolerance policy for drug use," said McCurry, who, like Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, has admitted to using marijuana. "I was a kid in the 1970s," McCurry told the press. "Did I smoke a joint from time to time? Of course I did."
Republicans, of course, relished the opportunity to cast the Clinton White House as an den of iniquity. "No wonder we're losing the war on drugs when you've got such a big problem in the White House itself," observed presidential candidate Bob Dole.
But the Republicans are bedeviled by their own retroactive reefer madness. For instance, House Speaker Newt Gingrich denounced McCurry for being insufficiently contrite. Gingrich, however, has also admitted to smoking pot in the 1970s. In fact, in 1995 The Economist quoted the Speaker to the effect that smoking pot "was a sign that we were alive and in graduate school in that era."
It turns out that New York Rep. Susan Molinari, recently tapped by Dole to be the keynote speaker at the Republican National Convention, was similarly alive–though at the undergraduate level. The 38-year-old Molinari, who graduated from college in 1980, told the Washington Post, "close to 20 years ago I did experiment with marijuana." Molinari, unlike McCurry, was openly penitent. "Looking back on it, it was the wrong thing to do," she said. "If I knew then what I do now, I wouldn't have done it."
Interestingly, Bob Dole brushed aside concerns that his continued support for Molinari conflicted with his take on the White House staff scandal. "Oh come on," said Dole dismissively at a press conference. "I'm talking about recent use, hard drugs- -cocaine, crack, and other things."
Dole's comments raise a number of interesting questions that may, in the long run, bode well for the liberalization of drug laws: What exactly constitutes "recent use" for which someone should be punished? What's the statue of limitations on unscientific drug "experiments"? Does Dole actually mean to imply that marijuana is a "soft" drug–and if so, is it as soft as, say, hard liquor?
Of course, such questions are unlikely to go answered any time soon, by either Republicans or Democrats. Instead, we are left with a drug war that has resulted in a disturbing, schizophrenic reality: Even as top elected officials of both parties admit to illegal drug use (a trend that will only grow as post-Baby Boomers move into power positions), more and more Americans become ensnared in the drug war.
In 1994, for instance, federal, state, and local police made about one million arrests for drug possession, with marijuana busts accounting for close to half that total. According to the Lindesmith Center, a drug-policy think tank, taxpayers shell out between $20 billion and $30 billion annually on a war that the government admits it is losing.
Ironically, the "do as I say, not as I do" posture struck by many politicians may do as much to dampen enthusiasm for the drug war as anything else. For a change, citizens may begin to insist that they be held to the standard of politicians.
A version of this article was published in the Baltimore Sun, and other papers, on August 25, 1996.