Pubdate: Fri, 07 Nov 2003
Source: Concord Monitor (NH)
Copyright: 2003 Monitor Publishing Company
Author: Lisa Wangsness
Bookmark: (Cannabis)


Past Marijuana Use Now More Acceptable

Near the end of the Rock the Vote presidential candidates' forum in Boston 
this week, the moderator posed a question that once filled politicians with 

"Which of you are ready to admit to having used marijuana in the past?"

Though Howard Dean joked that the candidates would "keep our hands down on 
this one," only former ambassador Carol Moseley Braun declined to answer 
the question. Dean, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and North Carolina Sen. 
John Edwards said they had. The Rev. Al Sharpton said he had not.

Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich said he hadn't but added that he would 
decriminalize marijuana use.

Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman actually apologized - for not having smoked pot.

"I have a reputation for giving unpopular answers in Democratic debates," 
Lieberman joked. "I never used marijuana, sorry."

Not so long ago, the question presented an agonizing dilemma for 
politicians who committed youthful pot-related indiscretions: Admit having 
violated the law, and in so doing align oneself with the sex, drugs and 
rock 'n' roll hippie counterculture? Or lie about it, and hope to not get 

In 1992, Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Clinton famously tried to 
have it both ways by saying he'd smoked marijuana as a student "but didn't 

Eleven years later, nobody batted an eyelash at the candidates' frank 

"I think we're way past that in politics in America," said Republican 
consultant Dave Carney. "I think since the Clinton evasions, every 
candidate running for city council in the country has been asked that 
question - and not a single candidate has won or lost based on their 
answer. It's silly."

James Morone, a political science professor at Brown University and the 
author of Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History (Yale 
University Press, 2003), said Clinton showed the political world how not to 
address the marijuana question.

"The lesson is, don't deny it, don't let the press find the story, just get 
out there yourself and make it vanilla," he said. "When you come clean with 
something, the crucial thing is, what does your base think? And the 
Democratic base could care less about marijuana use."

Since the fire-and-brimstone sermons of the early 19th-century theologian 
Jonathan Edwards, who offered hope to sinners who would open their souls to 
the cleansing power of the Holy Spirit, Americans have loved nothing better 
than a conversion story, he said.

"No matter how horrible you've been, you can stand in the river and 
change," he said. "Americans are always in motion, redefining themselves, 
going on diets - unlike in other countries, here you can always start anew."

Kathy Sullivan, chairwoman of the Democratic State Committee, said the 
ascendance of the baby boomer generation has neutralized the marijuana issue.

"Ten years ago, you were talking about people who went to college maybe in 
the late '50s, early '60s" when most ambitious young students didn't touch 
marijuana, she said. "Now people who are running for office went to college 
in the late '60s, early '70s. There was more pot smoking going on in those 
days - that was the reality of that particular time."

Sullivan also noted that George W. Bush was elected president despite his 
refusal to answer questions during the 2000 campaign about rumors of 
cocaine use during his early years. (No credible publication has confirmed 
those rumors.)

"That's a very serious question, despite his refusal," she said.

Jayne Millerick, chairwoman of the Republican State Committee, said she 
thought the indifference toward the question had more to do with the 
serious issues confronting the nation, post-Sept. 11.

"It does seem to me that voters are more interested in how they stand on 
whether they're going to increase their taxes or what their positive ideas 
are about the economy," she said. "People are really focused on issues this 
time around, and I think that's a good thing."

Even Howard Simon, a spokesman for the Partnership for a Drug Free America, 
was not troubled by the Democrats' casual treatment of the issue. He said 
that thousands of parents ask his organization how to respond to their 
kids' questions about their own past marijuana use. The Partnership advises 
parents to be honest - and then to talk with their children about what they 
learned from the experience.

"I don't think I have a problem, really, with any of their answers," he 
said of the Democratic candidates. "If people can't, to a certain extent, 
be willing to talk about these issues, we're not going to solve them, 
either. And if you're not talking about it, kids are going to find out on 
their own."

Carney, however, had a problem with the question itself - along with many 
of the other less-than-substantive queries the Democrats were forced to 
answer at the Rock the Vote debate. (The final question was, "If you could 
pick one of your fellow candidates to party with, which would you choose?")

Carney said such questions demeaned the very serious political interests of 
young people, especially the thousands of high school-aged volunteers and 
college interns who work for little or no pay for political campaigns.

"There's not a campaign in the country today that doesn't run on kid 
power," he said. "It diminished the perception of what kids think about 
politics - and you know, they think a hell of a lot more than those stupid 
kinds of questions."
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