The Republican Candidate's Marijuana Dilemma

Back in 1992 when Bill Clinton said he kinda smoked pot, but "I didn't inhale," it was a big deal, both for the sort-of admission and for the squirreliness of the evasion. Eight years later, when Barack Obama said not only did he smoke pot, but he inhaled ("That was the point"), it was much less of a big deal, partly because Obama made no attempt to explain it away. As we move toward an era when most American adults have at least tried marijuana (more on that below), the chances that any particular candidate will have done it at least a time or two in their younger days grows higher and higher. But if you're a Republican, it's still complicated, since a large proportion of the population whose votes you need look at pot as something only done by hippies and jazz musicians.

You can see this struggle in the person of Marco Rubio, soon-to-be presidential candidate and erstwhile GOP golden boy. Yesterday he got asked in an interview with ABC's Jonathan Karl whether he had ever smoked pot, and here's what he said:

"If you say that you did, then suddenly there are people out there saying, 'Well, it's not a big deal. Look at all these successful people who did it.' And I don't want my kids to smoke marijuana. And I don't want other people's kids to smoke marijuana. I don't think there's a responsible way to recreationally use marijuana. On the other side of it is, if you tell people that you didn't, they won't believe you."

Karl gave the appropriate answer to that last part: "We'll believe you. If you didn't, you can just say you didn't." If the answer to the question was actually "no," then there would be no need to go through all this contemplation about the deleterious effect an admission might have on our nation's youth. Rubio's rationale for remaining mum is exactly the one George W. Bush had back in 2000 when he refused to answer any question about whether he had ever done drugs (there were rumors of cocaine use, as well as pot). As Bush said in a recorded conversation with advisor Doug Weade released in 2005, "Do you want your little kid to say, 'Hey Daddy, President Bush tried marijuana; I think I will.' … I wouldn't answer the marijuana question. You know why? Because I don't want some little kid doing what I tried."

You might think that of all the influences that might push a teenager to try pot, what a politician said about it would rank pretty low. And the nice thing about that particular response is that it couches your politically expedient evasion as an altruistic act of protection for the tender ears of the children. But before Bush, the standard operating procedure for politicians was to admit that 1) you "experimented" with it as a young person; 2) you didn't enjoy it; and 3) it was a youthful indiscretion that you deeply regret. Michael Kinsley lampooned this line in a classic 1990 column detailing his own history ("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").

I can't think of any prominent Republicans who have answered the question in the way Obama did, by saying they did and it's no big deal. As I said, that's because of their more socially conservative constituencies, who frown on it. But it's also about age. Take a look at these data, taken from government surveys on drug use:

The difference in lifetime use between the different age groups are small, all around or above 50 percent (though recent use drops off quickly after the mid-20s). All, that is, except for people over 65, only 15 percent of whom have ever tried cannabis.

Which makes perfect sense when you consider that it wasn't until the 1960s that it became a common part of youth culture. Your average 80-year-old Republican voter never smoked pot because they never encountered it as a young person. In a few years though, as more Baby Boomers enter retirement and more pre-Boomers die, that bar will probably rise to the same level as the others. And that's when even Republican candidates will answer the pot query by saying, "Yeah, I did it when I was young. Next question?"