Washington is a sophisticated town. It's full of politicians and lawyers and lobbyists. From their ranks every year graduates an impressive class of white-collar criminals who bring years of government experience to the nation's posher minimum-security prisons. And of those who remain behind, Washington boasts enough boozers and cruisers in high places to give the Ewings pause.

And so, last week Washington found itself shocked -- shocked! -- that a 41-year-old Chicago-Harvard product should have tried marijuana maybe half a dozen times in his life. Within 48 hours, Douglas Ginsburg's nomination for the Supreme Court was dead, and the lunacy began. The press hounds started shouting the M question -- Have you ever tried marijuana? -- to every presidential candidate they could corral. Not surprisingly, two of the youngest, Al Gore and Bruce Babbitt, said yes, and now await their fate.

Proceedings then got wacky. Old geezers like Claiborne Pell, 68, and new righters like Newt Gingrich came forward to confess their shame. Figuring that there is safety in numbers, they quickly admitted that they too had erred. Thus was born a new political phenomenon, marijuana season -- like deer season, a brief interval during which society permits exercises in indecency. With only days remaining in this free confessional period, days before a restless press moved on to some other "character issue," Sen. Lawton Chiles of Florida, 57, fessed up to . . . one joint 17 years ago.

What turned this story bizarre and comic was a historical accident. It was bound to happen that a Sixties Generation candidate for high office would admit to past drug use. But chances were that the first would be the liberal nominee of a liberal president. Liberals would then have argued that acquaintance with marijuana was no more than a generational marker and thus a political irrelevancy. Conservatives would have insisted that it was a sign of moral degeneracy and disqualification for office. The liberals would have won in a rout because, as a Newsweek poll shows, two-thirds of Americans think that past marijuana use is irrelevant to one's fitness for office. And we would have been done with it.

Instead, the script got shuffled because someone with an eye for irony reversed the characters. The first nominee to be impaled on a joint turned out to be a man whose mission was to bring profamily, anticrime, God-fearing values to the Supreme Court. As a result, partisans on both sides got confused.

Ronald Reagan dismissed his judge's marijuana use as "youthful error." And Edward Kennedy, a man highly practiced in youthful error and just finished pummeling Robert Bork for his insufficient appreciation of the right to privacy, called the marijuana story a "serious charge." (The only one to distinguish himself in this affair was Sen. Joseph Biden, who protested Ginsburg's lynching with: "My Lord, that's not a reason to disqualify a person.")

What counts as a serious charge these days? Are there any rules to govern our obsession with the private lives of public people? The new ethic of probing private life is not about to be abolished. I suggest, therefore, the following rule: no more questions that begin "have you ever." Just questions that ask "are you now."

The relevant question for Gary Hart was not "Have you ever committed adultery?" It is not just bad taste to ask. It is, considering John Kennedy's record, irrelevant. The pertinent question is "Mr. Candidate, are you having an affair on this swing through Iowa?" If the answer is yes, people will know this to be a man demonstrably reckless and can draw their conclusions.

The relevant question for Biden was not "Have you plagiarized, consciously or not, in the last 20 years?" How many writers could pass that test? The relevant question for Biden was: "In yesterday's speech, did you appropriate a Welshman's autobiography? Are you not sure, then, who you are?"

The relevant marijuana question for the next Supreme Court nominee is "Do you use the stuff?" If the answer is yes, then you have a pothead whom you don't want on the court. "Did you have a toke 10 years ago?" is a question for historians and cultural anthropologists. If senators insist on asking it, then they should ask all judges whether they have ever, say, driven drunk, a far graver offense not just to decency but to public safety.

And while this latest fit of sanctimony lasts, perhaps the senators would like to ask themselves the same question. As soon as everyone is through confessing to marijuana use, surely an open season could be arranged for drunk drivers -- and plagiarists and adulterers and fornicators and franking privilege abusers and God knows what next.