The desensitization of drug use in presidential politics

Amanda Carey Contributor
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In the 21st century, it’s okay if a president smoked pot and did drugs prior to becoming the leader of the free world.

In many ways, it’s just a throwback to America’s earliest days. A grand total of 12 former presidents are rumored among advocates to have smoked marijuana in some form at some point. One of the greatest presidential potheads, John F. Kennedy, reportedly smoked marijuana while occupying the White House, although he managed to keep it under wraps.

Some even believe that our nation’s great savior, Abraham Lincoln wrote, “Two of my favorite things are sitting on my front porch smoking a pipe of sweet hemp, and playing my Hohner harmonica.”

But somewhere between Lincoln and Lyndon (Johnson, that is) recreational drug use became a mark of bad character unfit for a president.

Yet when it comes to presidential campaigns and elections today, drug use isn’t nearly as taboo a subject as it used to be. That’s true for candidates as well as for the campaign workers themselves. As one veteran of the campaign trail told The Daily Caller, “Snoop Dogg would have enjoyed some of the campaigns I’ve been on.”

Since the fateful day in 1992, when presidential candidate Bill Clinton’s admission of drug use in the past (“I never inhaled”) created a media firestorm, the American political landscape has seen a desensitization of prior drug use by presidential candidates.

Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, experienced his minor drug scandal while in office. In 2005, tapes were leaked of conversations between Bush and a friend, Don Wead, during the early stages of the 2000 campaign.

In the tapes, Wead mentioned Bush’s denial of cocaine use, to which Bush replied with “I haven’t denied anything.”

Then, Bush talked about his strategy to refuse to answer media questions about past drug use. “I wouldn’t answer the marijuana questions. You know why? Because I don’t want some little kid doing what I tried.”

Obama is a different story. In 2006, after hinting at a presidential run, then-Senator Obama freely and openly admitted to drug use during his college years. “When I was a kid, I inhaled. That was point,” Obama said at the time.

And in his 1995 book, “Dreams from my Father,” Obama wrote about using marijuana and “maybe a little blow”.

Obama’s past dalliances with drugs were well-known throughout the campaign. But it didn’t prevent him from being elected to the presidency.

For the 2012 election cycle, one Republican contender – former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson – has made drug legalization the centerpiece of his platform. And in the fall of 2010, he admitted to smoking marijuana between 2005 and 2008.

And according to one source within the Johnson camp, the former governor is regularly asked by the media to talk about or comment on drug-related issues.

Moreover, another potential 2012 presidential contender, Mitch Daniels, has discussed his past drug use. As a student at Princeton, Daniels was arrested and fined in 1970 for marijuana possession. “I had used marijuana and I was fined for that, and that was appropriate,” Daniels recently said of his experience. Regardless, it doesn’t seem to be keeping him from pursuing higher aspirations.

“The baby boom generation has had a tremendous impact here,” Larry Sabato, Director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, told TheDC. “At most major colleges in the late 1960s through the ’70s and beyond, experimentation with marijuana and other drugs was widespread, and it happened among liberal and conservative young people alike,” he explained.

“Today’s much older boomers still remember, and they are unlikely to punish anybody for doing what they themselves did.”

But there’s another factor, said Sabato, which has made drug use less of an unthinkable offense. Because of scandals and controversies within the last few decades, politicians today are no longer the glorified public figures they once were.

“Americans no longer have idealized images of politicians running for high office,” he said.

“When I was growing up, we put high public officials on a pedestal. Now they are all right down at street level with the rest of us.”

The rest of us, indeed.