Pubdate: Feb 2000
Source: New Yorker Magazine (NY)
Copyright:  The Conde Nast Publications Inc.
Contact:  4 Times Square New York, NY 10036
Author: Henrik Hertzberg


A WEEK or so ago the latest chapter in the continuing saga of Al Gore' s
flaming youth erupted, as so many such stories do nowadays, from the
subterranean depths where book publishing, journalism, and the Internet flow
together. A new biography, full of purportedly titillating revelations, is
set for publication a few months hence (in this case by Houghton Mifflin); a
big magazine (in this case Newsweek, where the book's author, Bill Turque,
works) buys the first serial rights; the magazine's editors, worried about
the credibility of a source, develop qualms; an Internet reporter (in this
case Jake Tapper, of Salon) gets a tip; and the gist makes its way via the
tabloids to the mainstream papers (initially as a businesssection "media"
story) and the TV political gab shows, where, at this moment, it contentedly
bubbles and pops.

The story, in brief, is that John Warnecke, a former friend of Gore's, says
that in the early seventies, when the two were neighbors and cub reporters
at the Nashville Tennessean, they smoked marijuana together many, many
times-more often, arguably, than the "rare and infrequent" pot use to which
the Vice-President has long admitted. The tale is not especially scandalous,
but it is irresistible, and not just on account of the comic picture it
conjures up of the profoundly unwild and uncrazy Gore as an enthusiastic
doper-a big stiff with a big spliff. What gives the tale piquancy, even an
element of tragic dignity, is the apparent texture of the relationship
between the two men, who, like Prince Hal and Falstaff, were once as close
as brothers and then drifted far apart when their destinies diverged. Both
had grown up in the bosom of the Washington elite: Albert Gore, Sr., was a
prominent Senator, while Warnecke's father, John Carl Warnecke, was a famous
architect and was so close to Jacqueline Kennedy that she chose him to
design her husband's gravesite. But young Gore's life took him on a path to
Congress, the Senate, and the VicePresidency, while young Warnecke's led to
alcoholism, depression, and obscurity. The two have not spoken, Warnecke
says, since 1988, when Gore called him to ask him not to talk to the press
about their potsmoking.

At the level of national government, discussion of drug policy has been
dormant since the nineteeneighties ushered in the crack epidemic, just say
no, three strikes and you're out, and the prison boom. The Clinton
Administration, the first to be run by people who grew up with soft drugs,
chose to surrender to the reigning orthodoxy Yet the failure of the
twentyyear "drug war" has never been more apparent. The most damning
evidence can be found in the most recent "Fact Sheet" handed out by the
White House Office of National Drug Control Policy-the same office that is
currently in hot water for offering television networks millions in
financial incentives to insert antidrug "messages" into entertainment
programs. The surest measure of the success of drug interdiction and
enforcement is price: if drugs are made harder to come by, the price must
increase. According to the "Fact Sheet," however, the average price of a
gram of pure cocaine dropped from around $300 in 1981 to around $100 in
1997; for heroin, the price fell from $3,500 to $1,100. Only marijuana has
gotten more expensive, but its potency has more than kept pace. Interdiction
has functioned mainly as a protectionist and R. & D. program for the
burgeoning domestic marijuana industry whose product, once the equivalent of
iceberg lettuce, is now more akin to arugula. The nickel bag is long gone,
but not the nickel high.

Meanwhile, federal spending on drug control has gone from around $1.5
billion to around $16 billion, mostly for interdiction and criminal justice.
State and local spending has likewise multiplied, bringing the combined
annual bill to something in the neighborhood of $40 billion. The prison
population, which fifteen years ago was under threequarters of a million,
will cross the twomillion mark sometime this month. Drug convictions account
for the great bulk of that increase. The average drug offender in a federal
prison serves more time than does the average rapist, burglar, or mugger.
This costly jihad has scared off some casual users, but it has done nothing
to reduce the number of hardcore addicts.

These facts have not much intruded themselves upon the current political
campaign. Below the Presidential and wouldbe Presidential level, though,
there are modest signs of popular discontent with the drugpolicy status

quo. The voters of eight states, from California to Maine, have passed
initiatives approving the medical use of marijuana. There is growing
interest in practical alternatives to the regime of punitive prohibition,
particularly the approach known as "harm reduction"- which, in the words of
Ethan Nadelmann, of the George Sorosfunded Lindesmith Center, "aims to
reduce the negative consequences of both drug use and drug prohibition,
acknowledging that both will likely persist for the foreseeable future."
Even a few politicians have begun to call for fundamental reform, including
Congressman Tom Campbell, the probable Republican nominee in this year's
California Senate race, and Governor Gary Johnson, of New Mexico, also a
Republican, who has undertaken a sustained rhetorical crusade against what
he regards as the folly of the drug war.

With varying degrees of candor, three of the four plausible Presidential
candidates have admitted to (Gore and Bill Bradley) or alluded to (George W.
Bush) past drug use. The fourth, John McCain, says he has never done drugs,
but, as he said not long ago, he was already a prisoner of war when pot
became popular in the military ("Also, remember my age: sixtythree," he
added apologetically.) Gore has taken the usual babyboom politician's
boilerplate-admitting one or two episodes of unenjoyable "experimentation"-a
useful step further: for some years, he was an occasional (by his own
account) or regular (by Warnecke's) marijuana user. During those years, he
served in the Army in Vietnam, studied divinity and law, worked as a
newspaper reporter, and prepared to run for Congress. Whatever the effect
marijuana had on him (and he did, after all, once suggest putting a TV
camera in orbit, aiming it straight down, and broadcasting a picture of the
earth twentyfour hours a day on cable), his ability to function as a
productive citizen does not appear to have been impaired.

One day, perhaps, an actual or potential President will acknowledge that
there are meaningful distinctions to be drawn among different drugs and
different ways of using and abusing them; and that there is something
morally askew in a criminal justice system that treats adults who sell drugs
to other adults (let alone adults who merely grow marijuana plants) as
harshly as it does violent, predatory criminals. That day can hardly come
too soon, though when it does a great change may have already begun. "I
wouldn't be doing this if I didn't think this was a Berlin Wall-type
situation," Governor Johnson, of New Mexico, told an interviewer recently,
explaining why he is willing to brave the indignation of the drug warriors.
"You're going to get a critical mass here, and all of a sudden it's just
going to topple."
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MAP posted-by: Don Beck