Marijuana Use Is Still a Morality Issue for Smokers-Turned-Politicians

Most Americans support legalization, but politicians still refer to their past use as a youthful mistake.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush speaks during the Wall Street Journal CEO Council in Washington, DC, December 1, 2014.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush speaks during the Wall Street Journal CEO Council in Washington, DC, December 1, 2014.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

It’s old news that Jeb Bush smoked marijuana as a teenager, but his re-admission in a new profile in the Boston Globe that he drank alcohol and partook in pot has raised the question of whether presidential candidates who indulged in their youths and don't support lenient drug policy as adults are hypocrites.

Senator Rand Paul, for one, says so. “Hypocrisy is, ‘Hey, I did it and it’s OK for me because I was rich and at an elite school, but if you’re poor and black or brown and live in a poor section of one of our big cities, we’re going to put you in jail and throw away the key,’” Paul told the Hill on Friday. And voters don’t support hypocrites, the Bush rival said.

But even among lawmakers like Paul, who has said he was no “choir boy” in college and supports decriminalization, there’s a narrative that marijuana use is a youthful mistake, that the drug is harmful, and that it should be avoided. A majority of Americans support both the decriminalization and legalization of marijuana, yet no potential presidential candidate has gone so far as to endorse the latter. (Decriminalization, on the other hand, has the support of several likely contenders.) Instead the debate has been over whether people should be jailed for marijuana possession.

Bush acknowledged his marijuana use in 1994, when he was running to be Florida governor. In 1998, he said “it was a stupid thing to do, and it was wrong,” according to Time magazine. Even in the recent Globe profile, the Jeb Bush who smoked marijuana is characterized as politically disengaged, academically unmotivated, and possibly even a bully (he said he doesn’t remember bullying anyone). That was the “before” to his more successful “after,” when he met his wife, became a more serious person, and transformed into the man he is today: someone who encouraged Floridians to vote against medical marijuana and for jail instead of treatment for nonviolent drug offenders.

Paul argues that Bush was lucky to be rich and white when he indulged in marijuana, otherwise his life may have been ruined by draconian drug laws. But Paul doesn’t dispute that smoking is a blunder. In December, when Louisville's WHAS11 News asked Paul if he’d smoked pot in college, he said he had made mistakes as a kid and noted the last three presidents' wrestling with the issue. Paul said in 2013 that marijuana is “unhealthy,” a comment that angered pro-pot activists.

Even Choom Gang alum President Barack Obama has decided to leave marijuana policy up to states, despite the complications that approach creates. As a candidate in 2007, Obama mocked former President Bill Clinton’s claim that he tried marijuana but “didn’t inhale,” but said it wasn’t something he was proud of doing himself. “It was a mistake as a young man,” Obama said

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