08/16/2010 11:29 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Voters Care About Drug Policies, Not Past Drug Use

There's a change occurring in American politics: Candidates are being more open about past drug use -- and not just marijuana. More politicians are coming clean about their past experimentation with other illegal drugs, including cocaine.

Four of the six candidates for New York attorney general confessed to past drug use this week. Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice admitted to "dabbling" with cocaine and marijuana in college, trying the drugs a "handful" of times.

Sen. Eric Schneiderman (D-Manhattan) said he had used both cocaine and marijuana; and Eric Dinallo and Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan both admitted to formerly using marijuana.

It seems to be a trend. In 2009, two Democratic candidates for Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus Vance and Richard Aborn, admitted to using marijuana and cocaine; Vance was elected.

The year before, just days after becoming governor, David A. Paterson admitted to past marijuana and cocaine use.

And Barack Obama broke ground as a presidential candidate who had written honestly about trying marijuana and cocaine when he was in college. Obama's drug use clearly had little negative impact on voters. In fact, his honesty likely humanized him with both young voters and baby boomers.

We've come a long way since 1987, when Douglas H. Ginsburg was dumped from consideration for the Supreme Court because he had used marijuana in the 1960s and '70s. While no one is advocating drug use, voters appreciate straight talk about drugs -- which isn't surprising, given that nearly 100 million Americans have tried marijuana at least once, and millions have struggled with drug abuse and dependency on legal and illegal drugs alike.

This honesty is a welcome change from the ridiculous responses about drug use by previous candidates, including George W. Bush's refusal to answer questions about his "youthful indiscretions" and Bill Clinton's claim that he "didn't inhale.''

But while candidates are becoming more honest about their drug use, voters are increasingly impatient with our current drug policies. After nearly 40 years of waging a "war on drugs," we've got nothing to show for it except mass incarceration, institutionalized racism, and broken communities.

There are hopeful signs the tide is turning. Recently, Obama signed legislation reducing the disparity in penalties for crack and powder cocaine, long a cause of unconscionable racial inequity in sentencing.

And last week, the House passed legislation creating a blue-ribbon commission to study the sprawling and out-of-control prison-industrial complex -- itself an outgrowth of the war on drugs -- and make recommendations for systemic reform. These developments were nearly unthinkable 20 years ago.

In New York, last year's reforms to the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws have become a critical litmus in the attorney general race, and with good reason. The ineffective laws distorted our criminal justice system: Blacks and Latinos made up more than 90 percent of those incarcerated for low-level offenses like possession, even though most drug users look like the attorney general candidates -- they're white. Voters, who in polls are overwhelmingly supportive of drug law reform, are carefully reviewing candidate records on the issue. All of the Democratic attorney general candidates, a group that also includes Assemblyman Richard Brodsky (D-Westchester) and former prosecutor Sean Coffey, now say they support the drug law reforms-- though Rice actively opposed the reforms in 2009 and even sought to block their passage. Donovan, the lone Republican in the field, denounces the reforms.

Until very recently, candidates were silent about their past drug use and most promised criminal justice-based "lock 'em up!" solutions, criminalizing people for the same behavior, or "mistakes," that candidates themselves had engaged in. Had any of these candidates been arrested for their "mistakes," -- as so many young Black and Latino men are every day -- they probably wouldn't be candidates today. But today's voters understand all too well that the drug war has failed, and now care more about smarter policies than about past drug use. Candidates should take heed.

A version of this article appeared in the August 6 edition of Newsday (Long Island).