Every presidential election year there is a news cycle about candidates' drug use. The "I did not inhale" statement by then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton was one of the most humorous and pitiful "admissions" that still makes the eyes roll. Another pathetic example of hypocrisy came from George W. Bush. "Mr. Straight Shooter" still refuses to answer questions about his "youthful indiscretions," and the record has been expunged. In this context, Sen. Barack Obama's honesty on this topic was so refreshing. In his book, Dreams from My Father, Obama openly admits to not only smoking marijuana but trying cocaine. We also have read about Obama's current struggles over giving up cigarettes.
Why should any of us be surprised that any politician, whether it be Sen. Obama, former Vice President Gore, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, has tried (and maybe even enjoyed) marijuana or other drugs. Remember, despite 40 years of attempting to make a "Drug-Free America," half of all high school students have tried marijuana before they graduate from high school.
Tens of millions of Americans still use drugs (alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana, Viagra, cocaine, caffeine, prescription drugs) both for pleasure and to soothe pain. The fact that Obama used drugs in his youth only humanizes him. I believe that it will backfire for Hillary and her campaign to try to "Willie Horton" Obama on the drug question. Hillary is still facing anger from voters for her cynical support of Bush's devastating war in Iraq. Far from showing leadership, Hillary has constantly been behind the curve and public sentiment regarding the war in Iraq. And now Hillary is showing that she is behind the curve when it comes to the other war: the war on drugs.
Not only is her campaign trying to take down Obama with drug baiting, she is also backwards when it comes to our racist drug laws. Federal mandatory minimums enacted by Congress in the 1980s punished sellers of crack cocaine 100 times more severely than those convicted of powder-cocaine offenses. Five grams of crack means an automatic five years in jail. It takes up to 500 grams of powdered cocaine for the same punishment. This has not led to less drug use but, instead, a prison system that mass incarcerates African Americans and Latinos. While drug abuse doesn't discriminate, our drug policies do. Despite equal drug use among blacks and whites, blacks go to jail on drug charges at 13 times the rate of whites. Hillary Clinton is the only major Democratic presidential candidate who did not support the Sentencing Commission's unanimous vote this week to apply recent sentencing reductions for crack-cocaine offenses retroactively.
The war in Iraq and the war on drugs are two unwinnable wars that have caused unimaginable suffering and death. The country is looking for leadership and for exit strategies that will allow us to heal from these catastrophes. Hillary has decided to put her chips on the Bush Administration's fearmongoring. Hillary is tone deaf and living in the past. In upcoming elections it is going to be "drug baiting" and support of inhumane and racist laws that will cost more votes than having tried marijuana when you were young.
Tony Newman is director of media relations for the Drug Policy Alliance Network.