Politics & Policy

Jeb and Ted’s Bogus Journey

From youthful pot smoking to mandatory-drug-sentencing complicity.

Stop the presses, for some shocking news has just flickered across the web: Apparently, when he was in college, Ted Cruz smoked marijuana; and so, by his own admission, did Jeb Bush. The Huffington Post reports:

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) smoked marijuana as a teenager, according to a spokesperson, who described the potential 2016 presidential candidate’s youthful experimentation as a “mistake.”

The Daily Mail’s David Martosko asked ten potential GOP presidential candidates whether they had smoked pot. Cruz’s camp was one of seven to respond, and the only one to offer new details on their boss’s past drug use. 

“Teenagers are often known for their lack of judgment, and Sen. Cruz was no exception,” the spokesperson told the paper. “When he was a teenager, he foolishly experimented with marijuana. It was a mistake, and he’s never tried it since.”

Last week, former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R.) told the Boston Globe that he, too, had experimented with marijuana in high school.

Gosh. Next, they’ll be telling us that Bill Clinton inhaled and that Mark Sanford is not actually that into hiking.

It is customary for confessions such as these to prompt the charge of hypocrisy, and, in an important sense, this is a fair critique. Nevertheless, because “hypocrite” is such a reflexively cast word these days, it is perhaps worth our breaking down exactly what its employers mean here. Clearly, it is not always unreasonable for a person to change his mind on a given issue, and nor is it beyond the realms of acceptability for a lawmaker to cast his previous behavior as youthful indiscretion and to announce that, in his maturity, he has come to regret it. Further, that a public figure once broke a particular law does not in and of itself foreclose him from supporting that law later on in life — especially if the primary reason that the law was passed was to protect others rather than to protect him from himself. There is, for instance, no particular requirement that a man who has once taken to shoplifting must forever oppose private property laws, or even that he should seek to reduce the penalties for those who are found guilty of the same crime he once committed.

Evidently, people change, and their politics do too. Sure, it might feel rather grand to shout “but you did it, too” at reformed law-and-order types, but this line of attack does not represent an especially good argument in and of itself. “Indeed I did,” an opponent might retort. “But it was a mistake. I now understand what I once did not, and the case can stand on its own.”

Nevertheless, we might expect our public officials to at least acknowledge what they are doing when they seek punishments for others that they themselves eluded — and, for that matter, to ask themselves whether they would have considered the retaliation they hope to mete out against others to be worthwhile if it had been directed at them instead. All told, it seems reasonably clear that whatever Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush may now think are the downsides of smoking marijuana, they themselves have not been hurt too badly by their dalliances. Indeed, as both their professional records and their bank balances show, quite the opposite is true. One of them is a Harvard-educated United States senator, married to an executive at Goldman Sachs; the other a former governor of Florida. What exactly, one wonders, is their case against marijuana: Don’t smoke it or you’ll end up like me?

Judging by the incarceration statistics, it seems eminently possible that the biggest threat that would-be tokers face in America comes not from smoking the drug itself, but from the legal consequences of their being caught holding it. At present, a staggering number of young men have had their lives destroyed or delayed by what Ted Cruz now describes as a “foolish experiment” — not, of course, because their brains were melted or because their work ethic was destroyed, but because the state came down hard on them for having broken the law. (The federal punishment for first offenders who are caught in possession of any amount of marijuana is a maximum of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.) Most of these men, it is safe to say, will never be senators or governors or hedge-fund titans. Indeed, a good number of them will never hold down a job at all. This being so, one might expect that those among our public officials who have transgressed and got away with it would look upon their less fortunate brethren with sympathy, and, entertaining the possibility that there but for the grace of God go they, seek to lead the charge against the existing rules. Why, they might ask themselves, are we comfortable with the punishment of these people when we did exactly what they did and came out so happily?

Do they do this? Apparently not, no. At it stands, the United States has strict drug-prohibition laws at both the federal and the state levels — laws, it should be noted, that both Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz broke, but that they are not hoping to repeal. Sadly, Bush seems to be something of a drug warrior. Not only was he an early advocate of harsh mandatory minimums for drug crimes, but, while governor of Florida, he opposed a program that would have permitted non-violent drug offenders to enter treatment instead of jail — even though his own daughter would have benefited from the arrangement. And, although he is better on the issue than Bush, Cruz too has hitherto failed to take the concrete steps that his rhetoric has suggested he might. Admirably, he has been both a champion of mandatory-minimum reform and a strong advocate of the rule of law over legislative caprice. (Rather unfairly, his primary criticism of the Obama administration — that it was simply ignoring the existing rules, rather than seeking a legislative change — has been mistaken for support of those laws, which isn’t entirely fair.) And yet, for all his mutterings and insinuations, he has neither come out in favor of the decriminalization of marijuana (as has long been the editorial policy of National Review), nor, beyond wishing to provide judges with more discretion, has he proposed significant changes to the rules governing those who violate the existing settlement. Why, when he knows what he knows?

As a matter of personal taste, I should say that I do not care one whit that Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and President Obama smoked weed in their youth. In fact, that makes them all seem a little more human. But I do mind that our society tends to inflict a great deal more damage on those who are caught immediately than on those who are eventually forced to confess their mistakes. If, as our laws suggest, we believe that it is morally worthwhile to punish those who break our drug laws, shouldn’t we also think that it is worthwhile to punish those politicians who have dabbled in illicit behavior? Imagine, if you will, that instead of admitting to smoking a few joints, Ted Cruz had announced that in his past he had made a violent “mistake”: that he was guilty of battery, perhaps; or of armed robbery. Do we honestly imagine that we would just laugh it off as we do with marijuana, and say, “Hey, teenagers right?” I rather doubt it. Instead, I’d venture that we would focus on little else for the remainder of his career. As it is, he will likely shrug off the news and, almost immediately, return to business as usual. This raises a question: Isn’t it possible that we don’t really believe that smoking or possessing marijuana is that much of a problem — or at least that we certainly don’t believe that it is a crime that should result in jail time or in the ruination of a career? And, if so, shouldn’t we subsequently reconsider how we treat those who do not get away with it?

We won’t, of course. Like President Obama before them, Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush will pay no real price whatsoever, for our drug wars are rarely, if ever, fought fairly. When I was at university in England, many of the wealthier kids liked to possess and to snort cocaine — a Class A drug. Everyone knew that this was happening: the other students, the venues at which they congregated, the officials who turned a blind eye, and even the police themselves. And how many of them do you think were ever arrested? How many raids were carried out on the favored nightclubs, bars, and dorm rooms? The answer, as you might imagine, is precisely none. Instead, the police spent their time and resources investigating the drug scene in the many suburbs that surround Oxford.

One day — if it is not already the case — many of the people who got away with it at university will be running the country. They will be the politicians and bankers and writers and captains of industry, and their only real competition for these positions will come from people who attended other elite schools and who got away with their experiments with drugs. Later, some of them will confess that they used to play around with illicit substances. And, once again, nothing will happen. The measure of these people will be whether they recognize that they owe their success in some part to the liberty they enjoyed when going through their rebellious phase, and whether they are prepared to extend that liberty to others. Are they? Is Ted Cruz? Are you?

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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