In his memoir Dreams From My Father, Barack Obama described his youthful drug use. He discussed smoking “reefer” at Occidental College and, before that, he “indulged in marijuana, alcohol and sometimes cocaine as a high school student in Hawaii.”
He now regards this behavior as stupid and misguided, as he explained to The New Yorker: “I view [marijuana use] as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked …through a big chunk of my adult life.”
While acknowledging that he doesn’t think that “it is more dangerous than alcohol,” the President opposes legalization of the drug: “If marijuana is fully legalized and at some point folks say, Well, we can come up with a negotiated dose of cocaine that we can show is not any more harmful than vodka, are we open to that?”
So Barack Obama opposes legalizing drugs he himself used in a controlled manner, even as he acknowledges the dysfunction of jailing people (mainly inner-city people) for using drugs.
Michael Botticelli [Source]
Now let’s turn to the US “Drug Czar,” Michael Botticelli, another Titan of our national drugs policy. He, speaking for the White House, opposes legalizing any drugs (including even medical marijuana). Why? Well, as a person in recovery, of course he realizes the dangers of illicit drug use.
At the same time, Botticelli strongly argues against jailing people who are addicted to drugs. Instead, he recommends that they should be forced into treatment, as he was, which got him into recovery.
Oh, did I mention that Botticelli’s problematic substance was alcohol, but that he used both legal and illegal drugs in a controlled way, including marijuana, cocaine and—Obama’s bête noire—cigarettes?
So, like the President, the Drug Czar used illegal substances in a non-problematic way, opposes jailing drug-addicted people, yet wants drugs to remain illegal.
But what about people who use illicit drugs the way Obama and Botticelli did—moderately—and who aren’t addicted? What should happen to them?
To help us untangle the thicket of drug use at the White House, I have created a helpful table. The results may surprise you:
First, how do I know these things?
The President, despite mentioning his drug use in his memoir, has generally been pretty guarded on this subject. However, the New York Times early in the 2008 presidential campaign conducted “three dozen interviews with friends, classmates and mentors from his high school and Occidental” about Obama’s youthful drug use.
His current drug use—other than his eschewing illicit substances, of course—is slightly thornier to decipher, as he doesn’t really detail his drinking or smoking. Those phenomena we have to deduce from stray comments he has made and observations by others.
Michael Botticelli, on the other hand, talks constantly about his past and current substance use. Indeed, his recovery is the basis for his selection as Drug Czar. Yet his narrative is actually rather surprising, its details often ignored. I’ll also rely on his interview by the newspaper of record, The Times, titled: “Michael Botticelli Is a Drug Czar Who Knows Addiction Firsthand.”
Let’s run through the list of substances in “The Thicket.”
Marijuana and cocaine. Since the President has confessed to using these drugs, including marijuana regularly, we might wonder whether he is understating the degree of his previous use. But those who knew him paint a quite different portrait from someone with addiction, as reflected in the Times article’s title: “Old Friends Say Drugs Played Bit Part in Obama’s Young Life.”
The interviews revealed the President “as being grounded, motivated and poised, someone who did not appear to be grappling with any drug problems and seemed to dabble only with marijuana.” One friend described him “as a model of moderation — jogging in the morning, playing pickup basketball at the gym, hitting the books and socializing. If someone passed him a joint, he would take a drag. We’d smoke or have one extra beer, but he would not even do as much as other people on campus.”
And what about Botticelli? As he often relates, he was arrested for a drunk driving accident, passed out, awoke handcuffed to a bed in jail, was sentenced to four months of treatment, which in turn led him to recovery (he hasn’t had a drink in 26 years)—which he believes saved his life.
But Botticelli never had a drug problem, despite his having “used marijuana a few times, as well as cocaine, he said, ‘on a somewhat occasional basis.’”
Alcohol. Obviously, Botticelli’s problem was drinking. However, he only ever describes his one DUI accident, solely on the basis of which no legitimate diagnosis can be made. For the president, alcohol seems to be a present part of his life, judging from his enjoyment of wine in Paris with world leaders like Putin and Hollande, cocktails with his wife when they (rarely) get to go out on “dates,” and even the beer he had at the “beer summit” with Professor Gates and the police officer who arrested him. It seems the President drinks appropriately and enjoys alcohol.
Opioids. Neither man reports having used narcotics recreationally, certainly addictively. But whereas we might expect the President, as someone not in recovery, to use painkillers (thus my entry in the chart) if he should ever require them, Botticelli “refused a prescription for opioid painkillers after a significant medical procedure for fear they might awaken addictive behavior.”
Cigarettes. President Obama has obviously had a smoking problem that he has fought hard to overcome. From time to time, reports surface of the president sneaking a smoke. But he has not relapsed to his former cigarette addiction.
Here’s a strange part of this story. Botticelli describes “his only synapse-soothing substance [as] being an occasional cigarette.” The recovering Drug Czar used pot and cocaine occasionally, is able to control his smoking (certainly among the most addictive substance habits available), and really doesn’t provide an in-depth description of his supposed alcoholism. Is the Czar really someone who demonstrates a predisposition to addiction? Or is he actually relatively resistant to it?
These two men critical to American drug policy decision-making both argue against ending drug prohibition—even though, according to our “Thicket” chart, they have each sampled a relatively wide variety of licit and illicit drugs, and the only substances that have caused either of them problems are legal ones.
Shouldn’t they instead be leading us in a re-examination of our national assumptions about “dangerous” drugs?
Stanton Peele is a columnist for The Influence. He has been at the cutting-edge of addiction theory and practice since writing, with Archie Brodsky, Love and Addiction in 1975. He has since written numerous other books and developed the online Life Process Program. His latest book, with Ilse Thompson, is Recover!: An Empowering Program to Help You Stop Thinking Like an Addict and Reclaim Your Life. His website is Peele.net. Dr. Peele has won career achievement awards from the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies and the Drug Policy Alliance. You can follow him on Twitter: @