"It was a mistake," said Supreme Court nominee Douglas H. Ginsburg of his marijuana smoking in the 1960s and '70s.

Of course it wasn't a mistake at all, at the time, but then Ginsburg didn't know he was going to get sandbagged by history. His first encounter with smoking marijuana was in the 1960s, when it was a prerequisite to joining hip circles of students, radicals, Bohemians, civil rights activists, war protesters and all the heroes of the counterculture. How could he foresee an age when Nancy Reagan would adopt the tone of a Maoist commissar advocating the extermination of flies to proclaim in USA Today: "Each of us has a responsibility to be intolerant of drug use anywhere, anytime by anybody. Every one of us has an obligation to force the drug issue to the point it may make others uncomfortable and ourselves unpopular ... Be unyielding, and inflexible, and outspoken in your opposition to drugs."

Marijuana was so fashionable for a while that even conservative pillar William Buckley would sail offshore to smoke it in international waters and then flaunt it in a newspaper column. It was so benign that Cheech and Chong would make movie after movie featuring themselves as lovable, madcap potheads, sucking down endless smoke as Hollywood liberated itself from the production code that, starting in the 1930s, had refused the seal of approval to any movie showing drug use of any kind. The name of Harry Anslinger, head of the Treasury's Bureau of Narcotics, became a joke, along with the efforts of Richard Nixon to wipe out the weed -- one of the many impressionists imitating him on national television used to talk about "Ac-a-puc-alo Gold," the point being not that marijuana was bad but that Nixon was, by virtue of not even knowing that the variety in question was the legendary "Acapulco Gold."

It's hard to believe now, but a mammoth apparatus of movie stars, celebrities, politicians, musicians and writers came together to tout the virtues, yea, even the necessity, of smoking marijuana, and of taking more powerful drugs such as LSD and mescaline.

In a manifesto called "The Greening of America," a Yale Law professor named Charles Reich argued that "marijuana is a maker of revolution, a truth serum." Ecstasy and intoxication were the order of the day. British psychiatrist R.D. Laing concluded his book "The Politics of Experience" with the words: "If I could turn you on, if I could drive you out of your wretched mind, if I could tell you I would let you know." Harvard's Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert teamed up with an heir to the Mellon fortune at a New York State estate named Millbrook to dispense LSD along with the advice "turn on, tune in and drop out." The smash movie of 1969, "Easy Rider," had a sound track with a song containing the slogan "Don't bogart that joint, my friend, pass it over to me." The Beatles sang "Oooh, I get high with a little help from my friends."

And from Georgetown dining rooms to geodesic domes in New Mexico, one heard an anthem of a generation: "Take a deep breath and hold it."

"Goal-oriented people saw drugs as helping them in the late '60s and early '70s," says Dr. David Musto, a professor of psychiatry and the history of medicine at Yale and author of "The American Disease," a history of narcotics control. "The irony is that people never get more upset about drug use as it rises, they get more upset as it goes down. They become more intolerant. Now they see exercise, abstinence and healthy food as helping us be all we can be. The Reagan administration has thrived on this. Now its nominee to the Supreme Court has become a victim of it."

Ginsburg was only fulfilling what was expected of him at the time, smoking marijuana with his peers, just as he has emerged in the 1980s as a crusader for conservatism. He has always been a member of what drug-use scholar Daniel X. Freedman of UCLA has called "the culture-bearing elite." But even that elite saw a shadow on the future of drug use, Freedman recalls. Teaching then at the University of Chicago, Freedman would ask his students if they approved of marijuana smoking. They did. Then "I used to ask them, 'Is it good for your younger brothers and sisters in high school?' and they'd say, 'Well ...' "

According to some reports, Ginsburg smoked his last marijuana in 1979. This was a year after marijuana hit a peak in use among high school students, according to Musto, and a year after the peak numbers of the American public told pollsters that marijuana should be legalized.

In 1973, 18 percent of the general public agreed with legalization, according to data compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. By 1978 it was 30 percent, and by 1986 it was back to 18 percent. It was a different 18 percent, as well. The attitudes of the "culture-bearing elite" had trickled down to the lower orders, all right, but by the time they got there the elite was shutting off the faucet. In 1973, legalization was approved by 32 percent of Americans with a college education, 15 percent with a high school education and 6 percent with a grade school education. By 1986, only 22 percent of the collegians approved, while the numbers of high- and grade-schoolers had increased slightly.

Furthermore, youth, the great hope of 1973, had abandoned marijuana when a new generation came on the scene in 1986. While 42 percent of people 18 to 20 approved of legalization in 1973, only 16 percent did in 1986. Between 1980 and 1986, the percentage of college students reporting use of marijuana within the last 30 days fell from 34.3 to 23.6.

And this decline began well before the Reagan administration's crusade, indicating, as Musto says, that public intolerance of drugs comes on the heels of a decline of drug use, rather than leading it.

Another paradox of the flap over Ginsburg is that as late as August 1986, a Washington Post poll showed that only 6 percent of the American public saw marijuana as the drug causing "the most trouble in society as a whole," well behind alcohol at 21 percent and cocaine at 41 percent. As for being dangerous to health, Americans equated marijuana and alcohol, with a little less than half seeing both as "very dangerous."

While depressants were rumored to have killed guitarist Jimi Hendrix, heroin killed singer Janis Joplin, cocaine was the drug most often cited in the decline and death of comedian John Belushi, and alcohol has been the subject of a national campaign against the carnage caused by drunk driving, marijuana has not had publicity that lurid.

In 1975, The New England Journal of Medicine reported that a 4-year-old girl had become comatose after eating 1.5 grams of hashish, but noted that she recovered within 24 hours. In "Drugs, Set and Setting," Dr. Norman E. Zinberg wrote that "heavy users of marijuana experience great difficulty in giving up the drug. Once they do give it up, however, they experience no great discomfort or psychic dependency and relatively little functional incapacity."

The fear and outrage prompted by marijuana have come more from our belief that it exposes users to the same illegal subculture that supports the use of other drugs, and from the symbolic freight that marijuana carries -- a symbolism that taps into American racism and tension between the established classes and alienated subcultures.

As Musto points out, America first began to get concerned about marijuana in the 1930s, when states with large numbers of Mexican migrant workers began to fear that marijuana would turn them into uncontrollable crazies. This sort of racism had a precedent in 1910's Presidential Report to Congress, which said that cocaine "has been a potent incentive in driving the humbler negroes all over the country to abnormal crimes."

Fear of marijuana led to the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. Meanwhile, we linked marijuana with blacks, particularly black jazz musicians. By the 1950s, it was a staple of Bohemian enclaves from Greenwich Village to the Beat Generation, despite government propaganda and private sector efforts such as the 1936 film "Reefer Madness." When Ginsburg arrived at college, that movie had become a cult classic, much loved by campus movie theaters. Like the government, it implied that a terrible fate awaited anyone who took the tiniest taste of the stuff. This thought quickly seemed ridiculous to anyone who smoked very much of it. The notion that it could cause physical and mental damage had no basis in the reality of early and occasional users. Disparity between propaganda and practice led to the same analysis now being applied to cocaine, which seemed harmless to counterculturati for years, until the reports of death and addiction began filtering back.

As polls have showed, even by 1986 Americans saw marijuana as being relatively benign. So why the flap over Ginsburg, aside from the fact that he committed a crime, albeit a crime held to be relatively trivial in most states?

One explanation is that he got caught in a cycle of history that has been repeating itself since the early 19th century. With alcohol consumption, for instance, America has tended to go on binges that peaked about every 70 or 80 years, the length of a lifetime, with consumption highs coming around 1830, 1910 and 1975-80. Between 1850 and 1910, according to Musto, alcohol consumption rose from 1.8 to 2.6 gallons per American over 15 years of age, falling during Prohibition to less than a gallon and going back up to 2.7 gallons in 1975. Between the peaks, we rued our infatuation with demon rum and strove for temperance. In the same way, cocaine had a vogue in the late 19th century, which saw Sigmund Freud endorsing its tonic properties and the Parke Davis Co. selling it in 15 different forms, including cigarettes, inhalant, cordial and pure crystals of cocaine-hydrochloride.

That era ended with the passage of the Harrison Narcotic Act in 1914, which forbade doctors from prescribing opiates except in closely defined circumstances and from giving maintenance dosages to addicts -- a philosophy that would not be relaxed until methadone maintenance for heroin addicts began in the 1960s.

When marijuana arrived in the '30s, we were in one of our drug-hatred phases, and we never had the benefit of finding out its ill effects before we condemned it. It's bad enough that generations can be burned so badly by alcohol and cocaine and then see their grandchildren come back for more, but with marijuana there was no cultural memory to draw on, except the fears of ranchers and police chiefs, who were scared of Mexicans, and the dislike of bourgeois Americans, who loathed Bohemia. Ginsburg, therefore, has caught the weight of a down cycle in American opinion. He was also part of the first American generation to give marijuana a mass trial, and now he's part of the first generation to have learned through personal experience to fear it.

Another explanation for the flap over Ginsburg is that our Puritan heritage rejects any enjoyment through drugs, be they alcohol, marijuana, amphetamines or opiates. An editorial in the American Journal of Psychiatry once called for "an active effort to teach the individual and society how to enjoy and endure {life} without euphorants and escapants." Given the use of alcohol alone, this position seems very optimistic. Zinberg argues that "Our Puritan heritage is so deeply ingrained that even drinking is attended by a deep-seated ambivalence." Add illegality, politics and the ironies of a defender of conservatism being defended by liberals who condemn his conservatism, and that ambivalence becomes a force.

Also, marijuana came to symbolize what many Americans hated about both the counterculture and the liberal establishment, with their many overlappings. "We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee," sang Merle Haggard in "Okie From Muskogee," a song that became a rallying cry for the early 1970s backlash against the draft-dodging by the children of the elite, limousine liberalism, hippies, Woodstock, the Age of Aquarius, and other causes and slogans associated with marijuana.

It was this sort of resentment that helped propel Reagan into the White House, and, ultimately, into nominating an ambitious professor-turned-judge named Ginsburg. With his doctor wife performing abortions, with his youthful motorcycle riding, with his children taking his wife's name, with his Harvard professorship, Ginsburg seemed to fulfil the conservative stereotype of the kind of liberal who had so violently opposed Reagan's previous Supreme Court nominee, Robert Bork. But Ginsburg had also smoked marijuana.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) said, "My lord, this is not a reason to disqualify a person. Do we ask people if they were ever drunk?"

The problem is, people do get drunk in Muskogee.