Everyone in Washington knows that Al Gore and George W. Bush used illegal drugs when they were younger men -- only how much and how much younger remain unclear, tabloid mysteries that might still throw a little color into a drab election year. When Gore stopped smoking marijuana and whether Bush once eluded prosecution for cocaine would be hot debates already, at least on the Sunday morning news shows, but neither side is ready to pull the pin on these particular hand grenades. At the moment it's a case of mutual deterrence, two enemies with nuclear arsenals who are dying to attack but terrified of the response and the fallout.
This is the pitiful state of American politics. To the best of my recollection I never smoked anything with Al or George; it's my guess that the Dope Inquisition might give me a cleaner rating than either one of them. But I recall inhaling on several occasions. And as a contemporary of these candidates, I'd like to set the historical record a little straighter than any candidate for higher office is likely to set it.
For a period of at least a dozen years, from the mid-'60s to the late '70s, I never attended a social gathering of any description, with the possible but not certain exception of a funeral, at which illegal drugs were not present. They weren't consumed by everyone present, they weren't always consumed publicly. But they were on the premises, available if you were looking for them. Someone at every party was stoned or planned to be. Allowing for class and regional variation, and tossing out the Christian Right, this would conform to the experience of nearly everyone my age, including Al Gore and George Bush. If you don't believe me, you're well over 60 and you're in serious denial. (Or you're 19 and you can't believe these arthritic old fossils invented all the disreputable behavior you're still out there emulating.) I remember one New Year's Eve party in New York where my lady friend and I, innocent drinkers, were mystified to find $500 added to what we expected to pay for our share of the evening's festivities. The champagne was good but it wasn't vintage Dom Perignon. The next morning we discovered that there had been bowls in the rest rooms -- which we failed to notice -- filled to the brim with premium cocaine. If someone today outed that party (1979?) to the Dope Inquisition, to discredit some candidate or other, a lot of very well-placed grandfathers and grandmothers would be caught in the wringer. And me along with them, I guess, though I swear I sat there eating cheese puffs and singing "Auld Lang Syne" without a clue in the world.
That was the way it was. At the time, we never dreamed that our respectability in middle age and senescence would depend on lying about these memories. You couldn't have convinced us, for one thing, that marijuana would still be illegal in the year 2000, and that harmless people could still be doing 20 years of hard time for selling it to their friends. There's a lot of room to make fun of the '60s, but those of us who grew up in that decade were some of the most optimistic people America ever produced. We honestly expected certain things to improve. When idealists were clubbed and teargassed in Alabama, when they were shot at Kent State -- or when idealists of another stripe were bleeding in the rice paddies and eating Agent Orange -- they weren't shedding their blood to make the world safe for hypocrisy. When did strategic hypocrisy become a way of life, when did false outrage become the media's dominant idiom? How did the most narrow, hypocritical, pharisaical minority come to set the standards and define the scandals, and dictate which sections of our lives are fit for public consumption and which are not?
Marinated in this cant, the public part of our culture no longer takes its cues from reality. To those of us familiar with the effects of exotic chemicals, it's America the Beautiful that seems to be "on drugs," a junkie nation sinking into some extended narcotic nightmare. Prozac and other antidepressants are prescribed carelessly, it seems to me, for nearly every adult who feels out of sorts; the same drugs, along with Ritalin, have been mobilized to hold our bewildered children within some artificial social norm. But the drugs parents and physicians provide don't offer enough insulation from real events and real emotions, apparently -- the number of kids 12 to 17 who supplement their prescriptions with marijuana increased dramatically during the '90s, and heroin use for the same group nearly doubled.
How many Americans behave as if mind-altering substances have robbed them of their judgment and their will? A mass audience addicted to the cheapest tabloid sentiment is herded by the media from scandal to melodrama like cattle to feeding stations, and whichever ensilage they eat most enthusiastically becomes "the news." Supplemented with freakish "talk" shows, wrestling, roller derby and monster-truck races on TV, a steady diet of violent or adulterous celebrities will keep most of the herd chewing happily. But you didn't see the worst of the media machine and its political parasites until they invited the livestock to feast on the miseries of a frightened child. The Elian Gonzalez episode settled my contempt for the media in a place far beyond anger or indignation, in a region of cold hopeless loathing.
As a nation we gorge ourselves on controlled substances and consume mind-candy of every description. We embrace anything -- chemical, commercial, electronic, pseudo-spiritual -- that offers a moment's respite from the hard truths and tough choices that wait just beyond the veil of our delusions. In this way, I imagine, we resemble nearly every society since the dawn of humanity. The critical difference is that America, in full flight from clear vision and unimpaired judgment, persists in a posture of vengeful fury against anyone who traffics in the few drugs that have arbitrarily been declared illegal. It's the same kind of contradiction that makes America the most puritanical of countries and the most sexually obsessed. Where we find weakness in ourselves, we strike out violently against the same weakness in others, and human frailty becomes a theater of war. The stubborn "War on Drugs" has wasted billions of dollars and thousands of lives, destabilized foreign governments and made a shambles of our overtaxed courts and prisons. Foreigners are astounded and appalled by the destructive energy of our denial.
"What is the purpose of plunging countries into civil war, strengthening guerrilla groups and unleashing enormous violence and corruption upon entire societies," writes Mexican political scientist Jorge Castaneda, "if American leaders can simply brush off questions about drug use in their youth?"
"I don't understand this," said a Yemeni waiter in New York, as narcotics officers arrested three of his friends for possession of khat, a mild narcotic as common as chewing gum in Arab countries. "In my country, khat is easy. Everybody, the president, they have it." "At the end of the day, the United States does not care if we all kill each other," said Alejo Vargas, vice rector of the National University of Colombia. "All that matters to them is that we get rid of the drug crops."
For all the bloodshed and political insanity, for all the expense -- the military effort in Colombia alone is budgeted at $1.6 billion for the next two years -- the international War on Drugs is a ridiculous failure. Since 1998, US spending in Colombia has tripled and cocaine cultivation has soared 50 percent, with another 50 percent increase projected by 2002. Somehow the money we spend to eliminate cocaine ends up in the pockets of people who produce it. Half the world is laughing at us, the other half is weeping for the harm we've done. Colossal ironies abound. The wife of Col. James Hiett, one of America's key anti-drug warriors in Colombia, was arrested for smuggling several kilos of cocaine from Bogota to New York, and the colonel himself has since been implicated. While our forces in the Andes shoot down every private airplane that rises above the tree-line, at least 50 American Airlines employees were smuggling cocaine into Miami in jetliner food bins, ashtrays and garbage bags. While draconian Reagan-era sentencing laws have clogged the penal system with drug criminals, most of them have been able to score drugs inside the prison walls.
But ironies that could crush an elephant make no impression on the White House and its drug "czar," Gen. McCaffrey, or on the zero-tolerance bloc in Congress. On some news show I saw one of these congressmen, a Rep. Peterson from Pennsylvania, talking about "marijuana that leads inevitably to the hard stuff." I thought I was time-traveling, back to the era of Reefer Madness movies.
Hypocrites or simpletons, sometimes both, these politicians are suspended in time but oblivious to history. Would it change their perspective to learn that the biggest drug dealer of all time was not some Colombian cartelito, but Queen Victoria of England? The British East India Company was chartered by the Crown and controlled, after 1773, by their Britannic Majesties' cabinets. And in 1844 alone, from the port of Bombay alone, Company merchants shipped Malwa opium worth nearly two million pounds to China. Do the math. In 1839 the new queen's government fought a war against China to protect the opium trade, an income indispensable to her sprawling empire. Would Gen. McCaffrey have sent troops to chastise England, the dealer, India, the producer, or China, the consumer? Drug policy assumes zero-tolerance for logic. Stubborn denial is broad and bipartisan; a simple rule of thumb is that no politician with further ambitions ever endorses decriminalization. Republican elders like William F. Buckley and George Schultz endorse it, in the unlikely company of Libertarians, old hippies and young punks. But among prominent elected officials only Minnesota's bizarre -- and unaffiliated -- Gov. Jesse Ventura has come out foursquare for decriminalization.
Some say the ex-wrestler has been hit with too many folding chairs, but what he says about drug abuse makes elegant sense to me -- that it's a health problem, a social problem and an educational problem, but only a criminal problem if we choose to make and keep it one. Cautious decriminalization must be worth a try, if only to remove big mobs and big money from the equation. No one knows exactly what to expect when heroin and cocaine are controlled substances like alcohol and nicotine, or when addiction is a cop-free affliction, treated like any other disease. But we've exhausted other options. And only an idiot will argue that a coke dealer who doesn't sell to children or machine-gun his competitors is morally inferior to Seagram's or R.J. Reynolds.
Yet idiots argue just so, and nothing budges. Of all the folly, hypocrisy and cul-de-sac thinking that make this stumbling republic so much less than it ought to be, drug policy is a kind of centerpiece, a towering monument to the flaws in our character. Will the monument finally crumble when everyone who's supposed to be fighting drugs is using them, or at least remembers using them? Or does hypocrisy outlive the hypocrite and achieve an immortality of its own?
Hal Crowther is a columnist for the weekly Independent in Durham, N.C. He won the H.L. Mencken Award for column writing in 1992. A collection of his essays, Unarmed but Dangerous, was published by the Longstreet Press, Atlanta. Write him at 219 N. Churton St., Hillsborough, NC 27278.