Jewish World Review Sept. 8, 1999/ 27 Elul, 5759
But there's more to the cocaine story than that. It raises real issues, not just about character but about policy. On one thing, Clinton partisans like columnist Joe Conason and Clinton critics like legal expert Stuart Taylor agree: politicians who advocate draconian war-on-drugs measures have some explaining to do if their private history is at odds with their public stance. (One might add that the same was true of Clinton, who championed stringent measures against sexual misconduct in the workplace.)
As Taylor points out, in 1997, Bush signed allowing judges to sentence people to jail, not just probation, for possessing less than one gram of cocaine (less than one-twentieth of an ounce). That means a "youthful indiscretion" could ruin a person's life.
Nearly half a million people in the U.S. are behind bars for drug violations. Among federal prisoners, a 1994 U.S. Department of Justice study found, 36% of drug offenders had no record of violence, no involvement in organized criminal activity and no prior imprisonment. Criminologist John J. DiIulio, Jr., generally a hawk on incarceration, now believes that too many non-dangerous drug offenders are doing hard time.
The controversy over Bush's past has revived the occasional debate about drug legalization. Gary Johnson, the Republican governor of New Mexico -- elected in 1994 despite admitting that he used marijuana and cocaine as a college student -- argues that the massive resources going to drug interdiction, law enforcement and prosecution should be redirected toward treating addicts and discouraging drug use.
For libertarians, legalization is not only a practical but a moral issue: does the government have the right to tell us what substances we can put in our bodies any more than it can tell us what books to read? If drugs can cause harm, they say, so can alcohol.
True, there are important differences between the two. Alcoholic beverages are consumed in the same manner as non-alcoholic ones, in large part for the pleasure of the drinking experience, not just intoxication. Shooting up heroin or snorting cocaine are rather unpleasant ways of getting substances into one's system; the mind- and mood-altering effect seems to be the sole purpose. So, apart from the question of whether hard drugs are more addictive and more harmful, there are legitimate grounds for the public revulsion toward drug use. But does the public have the right to translate revulsion into prohibition? Are drugs so evil they warrant protecting people from themselves?
Our attitude toward stories from the trenches of the war on drugs depends on the answer to this question. Is a woman with a stable family, a good job, and a heroin habit a victim in need of rescue, or a productive adult making a lifestyle choice? If she buys drugs for a friend, is that a matter between two consenting adults, or is she a purveyor of poison who deserves her 50-year prison sentence?
There are intelligent and well-meaning people on both sides of this issue. But what's undeniable is that, besides from the financial and human costs of prohibition, war-on-drugs zealotry is poisoning our public discourse. It encourages disregard for the truth, from the demonization of marijuana to Gov. Bush's assertion that for a public figure to admit to recreational drug use sets a bad example for the kids. Bush's proposed version of what boomer parents should tell their children -- "I've learned from mistakes I may or may not have made" -- is pure Clintonese.
Drug legalization or decriminalization may not be the answer. But
people should be able to raise this issue without being accused of being
soft on crime or insensitive to