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 the dangers of those drugs -- 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In 1970 Congress repealed tough penalties on marijuana possession and established a maximum penalty of one-year probation for first-time possession.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. For those 21 and younger, successful completion of probation expunged the arrest and indictment and no record would remain of the offense.
In 1971 NORML -- the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws -- was formed to press for legalization of marijuana. In 1974 High Times was first published to celebrate the new drug culture.
President Richard Nixon named conservative Pennsylvania Gov. Raymond Shafer to chair a congressionally mandated Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse. In 1973 the commission recommended that Congress decriminalize possession of marijuana for personal use, and the cognoscenti of the time applauded its action.
In 1977 President Jimmy 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 for personal use.
At the department of health, education and welfare, we were more concerned with herbicides used to kill marijuana than marijuana itself. As secretary of the department, I opposed the use of paraquat to kill marijuana plants, because the Centers for Disease Control and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences indicated "that the smoke of paraquat-contaminated marijuana is likely to cause lung damage when inhaled in sufficient quantities by marijuana users."
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 were current smokers (had smoked within the last month).
Cocaine was not as widely used as marijuana, but the number of regular users (at least monthly) in the late '70s and early '80s was counted in millions, not thousands. By 1982, 22 million Americans had tried cocaine. Several physicians, scientists and sophisticates said that cocaine was a nonaddictive recreational drug. Rich kids on college campuses snorted the white powder, as did Wall Street investment bankers who found it not only produced a great high but also allowed them to work incessantly on mega-deals with little or no sleep. Indeed, by the mid-1980s, the American people -- 5 percent of the world's population -- were consuming 50 percent of the world's cocaine (a situation that pretty much continues to this day). Timothy Leary, a Harvard University professor, played Pied Piper of LSD and hallucinogens for our young.
Then, startled by the cocaine overdose death of basketball star Len Bias in 1986, the nation awoke to the impact of such widespread drug use. We learned that LSD could fry the brain; cocaine was indeed addictive (and in smoked form fiercely so) and could incite users to states of paranoia and violence; and 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 heroin.
Older and wiser, the nation turned against drug use, revived and increased criminal penalties (especially for dealers and those who sold to children) 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 crop of presidential candidates is that so few smoked marijuana, and none (with the unknown exception of George W.) snorted cocaine.
For George W. I have some 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 whether you ever used cocaine and set out in depth what you believe our nation's drug policies should be in the context of the facts and experiences that we know today, not the fantasies and expectations that 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 men and women who try drugs or get hooked. If George W. does that, I don't believe anyone will hold against him his actions (assuming the worst) in swimming with the tide of naive nonsense about drugs during the 1970s.
Most important for the nation, such action by George W. might lead to a historical first: a serious discussion among the presidential candidates about the nation's drug policies that might spark the kind of research effort and investment in treatment for the abuse and addiction of all substances (illegal drugs, alcohol and nicotine) -- the nation's No. 1 disease and public health enemy -- deserves.
The writer is president of the National Center of Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. He was secretary of health, education and welfare from 1977 to 1979.