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Regrets Only

How little it mattered.

Although I have no special desire to be governor of Texas, and would actively prefer not to become head of the Office of Thrift Supervision (the poor soul charged with cleaning up the savings and loan mess), the traumas of aspirants to these posts in recent days compel me to make the following statement. It has been cleared with political consultants of both parties.

Like many members of my generation—Senator Al Gore and Representative Newt Gingrich, to name but two—I too have experimented with marijuana in the distant past.

It was in a party situation during my freshman year in college. Someone handed me a marijuana cigarette and I took a pull. Maybe two. I deeply regret this youthful indiscretion. I found the drug had no effect on me whatsoever, and I determined not to experiment with illicit substances any further. Instead, I got throwing-up drunk in a manner more suited to one with aspirations toward a leadership role in this great country of ours.

However, a few days later I experimented with marijuana once again. On that occasion I enjoyed it a good deal more. This youthful indiscretion I also deeply regret. During the next several years, overcome by the spirit of scientific inquiry, I experimented with marijuana perhaps 200 or more times. I am not sure of the exact number, but I do know that I deeply, deeply regret all of these youthful indiscretions.

As a law school student in the mid-’70s, I continued to conduct occasional experiments with marijuana—heedless of the baleful influence this apparently was having on the impressionable members of the faculty such as Professor (later Judge) Douglas Ginsburg. Years afterward, in 1987, Ginsburg lost his chance to become a Supreme Court justice after it was revealed that he had smoked pot while teaching at that very law school. Although my law school experiments were few in number, I deeply regret each one of them.

Unlike the string of prominent Americans who have come forward lately to confess their dope experiences, I cannot pinpoint with the same remarkable clarity the last time I experimented with marijuana. Specifically, I cannot guarantee that it was in the “distant” past. All I can say for sure is that it was in the past, somewhat distant, that it was an indiscretion, somewhat less youthful, and that I deeply regret it.

These days my drug of choice is decaf. I drink to forget. Knocks me right out. But if, perchance, I find myself experimenting with marijuana on some future occasion—which I won’t until the law, or at least the zeitgeist, has changed; but if that should ever happen—it will be an elderly indiscretion, which I regret all the same. Deeply.

The 1960s are said to have been a period of cultural revolution, with marijuana playing a big part. Surely, though, the lesson we are learning as more and more prominent people come forward with tales of their “experiments” with marijuana is how little effect it all had on the culture. The fact that nerds like Douglas Ginsburg (yes, or the author of this column), slick goody-goodies like Al Gore, and fast operators like Newt Gingrich all smoked dope shows both how widespread the phenomenon was and how little it mattered.

How little it mattered is a rebuke to marijuana’s fans as well as its foes. Pot didn’t stop Ginsburg from becoming a right-wing legal scholar or Gingrich from becoming House minority whip, which is hardly what Flower Power was supposed to lead to. On the other hand, it didn’t leave Timothy Ryan unwilling or unable to tackle the S&L catastrophe. (Most people would have to be stoned to even consider taking on that assignment.) The Great Pot Experiment of the ’60s and ’70s produced millions of conventional, productive, upstanding citizens, plus a few journalists.

After Ginsburg fell, a lawyer friend of mine expressed dismay that “the only members of our generation who will get to run the country will be sanctimonious liars.” I reassured him that this is true of every generation. But it appears now that Ginsburg was an aberration, a victim of temporary cultural confusion; on the marijuana question, out-and-out lying may not be necessary. Both President Bush and drug czar William Bennett have agreed that past pot-smoking should not disqualify someone from future high office. The revelation simply needs to contain the right ingredients: experiment ... distant past ... party situation ... like many members of generation ... youthful indiscretion ... deeply regret ...

Where is the line between youthful indiscretion and adult depravity? Is it about age 21? If so, the evolving standard about marijuana use is in odd contrast to the standard of recent years about alcohol consumption. Under the influence of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the federal government has pressured states into raising the drinking age from 18 to 21. In America, it seems it’s morally and politically acceptable to be stoned as a minor or drunk as an adult, but not the other way around.

Of course that’s not really true. You can’t be excused for “experimenting” with marijuana as a college kid today—only 20 years ago. Czar Bennett would like to take away the scholarships of students caught using marijuana. Massachusetts Attorney General James Shannon, age 37, recently made the boilerplate confession about past “experimentation,” but now favors mandatory prison time for even casual users caught twice. He says that his attitude has now changed. Well, as the Church Lady says on Saturday Night Live ... How convenient.

And what has really changed since 20 years ago except for the fact that those who were breaking the law are making the laws now? Marijuana was just as illegal back then as it is today. And there have been no dramatic discoveries about any harmful effects of using it casually. All that has changed is the zeitgeist. Yet young lives will be ruined while older lives proceed unmolested along their placid course.

All these ex-Communist-style confessions-cum-recantations about past drug use leave a bad taste in my mouth. What I’m waiting for is some politician to announce that he used to indulge in marijuana every now and then and that—whatever he thinks about more serious drug problems—he doesn’t especially regret it. Maybe even that what he really regrets is all the experiments he didn’t conduct in his youth, perhaps because he was too busy plotting his scramble up the establishment heights. To have used marijuana in the ’60s and ’70s, when everyone was supposed to have used marijuana, and to deplore marijuana in the ’80s and ’90s, when everyone is supposed to deplore it, is just a bit too unsurprising.