Pubdate: Tue 31 Aug, 1999
Source: New Haven Register (CT)
Copyright: 1999, New Haven Register
Author: Joseph A. Califano Jr.


As the national media turns its laser beam on George W. Bush, it might
be well to recall how culturally acceptable marijuana, cocaine and LSD
were - and how ignorant we were about their dangers - in the 1970s,
when the presidential candidate was "young and irresponsible."

In 1970, Congress repealed tough penalties on marijuana possession and
established a maximum penalty of one-year probation for first-time
possession. If probation were successfully completed, the proceedings
would be dismissed. That meant no record would remain of the offense
for those 21 and younger.

In 1971, NORML - the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana
Laws - was formed to press for legalization of marijuana. In 1973, the
congressionally mandated Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse
recommended that Congress decriminalize possession of marijuana for
personal use, and the cognoscenti applauded.

In 1977, President Carter asked Congress to eliminate criminal
penalties for possession of less than one ounce of marijuana and
replace them with a $100 fine. Over the decade, 11 state legislatures
representing about a third of the U.S. population decriminalized
marijuana. The Alaska Supreme Court held that the privacy clause in
its state constitution protected possession of marijuana in the home.

At the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, we were more
concerned with herbicides used to kill marijuana than marijuana
itself. As secretary, I opposed the use of paraquat to kill marijuana
plants because of official findings indicating that the smoke of
paraquat-contaminated marijuana likely caused lung damage.

By the early l980s, more than 60 million Americans had tried illegal
drugs, including 50 million who had smoked pot. One in 10 high school
seniors smoked marijuana daily; nearly four in 10 had smoked within
the last month.

The number of regular cocaine users (at least monthly) in the late
'70s and early '80s was counted in millions. By 1982, 22 million
Americans had tried it. Several physicians, scientists and
sophisticates said cocaine was a non-addictive recreational drug. Rich
college kids snorted it, as did Wall Street investment bankers who
found it allowed them to work incessantly with little or no sleep.

Then, startled by the 1986 cocaine overdose of basketball star Len
Bias, the nation awoke to the impact of such widespread drug use. We
learned that LSD could fry the brain; that cocaine was indeed
addictive (fiercely so, in smoked form) and could incite users to
paranoia and violence; and that marijuana could savage short-term
memory and ability to concentrate, stunt emotional and intellectual
development and increase the risk of using drugs such as cocaine and

Older and wiser, the nation turned against drug use, revived and
increased criminal penalties, and mounted major public health
campaigns to educate our young about the dangers of drug abuse. By
1990, casual drug use had dropped by half.

Against this backdrop, the remarkable thing about the current
presidential candidates is that so few smoked marijuana, and none
(with the unknown exception of George W.) snorted cocaine.

For George W., I have unsolicited advice about how to negotiate the
political white line in 1999. Stop moving the stake in the ground
(from won't respond, to seven years, to 25 years); answer the question
about whether you ever used cocaine, and set out in depth what you
believe our drug policies should be in the context of the facts and
experiences we know today, not the fantasies and expectations we
dreamed of in the 1970s.

Tell us your view of the dangers of those drugs: their addictive
power; the effectiveness of treatment; the ineffectiveness of
interdiction; the role of criminal laws, prisons and drug courts; and
the importance of the family, church, and school to battling drug use
by kids. Tell us how we should handle young people who try drugs or
get hooked.

If George W. does that, I don't believe anyone will hold against him
his actions in swimming with the tide of 1970s naive nonsense about

Such action by George W. might lead to a historical first: a serious
discussion among the presidential candidates about drug policies that
might spark the kind of research effort and investment in treatment
that the abuse of all substances (illegal drugs, alcohol and nicotine)
- - the nation's No. 1 disease and public health enemy - deserves.
Joseph A. Califano Jr., President Of The National Center Of Addiction
And Substance Abuse At Columbia University, Was Secretary Of Health,
Education And Welfare From 1977 To 1979. He Wrote This Article For The
Washington Post, 1150 15th St. N.w., Washington 20071-9200.

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