My Pollster Tells Me I Inhaled

Why do politicians sound so insincere when they admit to smoking cannabis?

In February, on the radio show The Breakfast Club, Sen. Kamala Harris told hosts Charlamagne the God, DJ Envy, and Angela Yee that she supported the legalization of marijuana — although with some caveats.

“We need to research the impact of weed on a developing brain,” the 2020 presidential candidate said, as if that were in fact some uncharted province of medical science, which it isn’t. But then she let her guard down a little.

“Have you ever smoked?” Charlamagne asked her.

“I did,” California’s junior senator replied, “and I inhaled.”

Laughing self-consciously, she added, “It was a long time ago.”

Harris then went on to cite her own Jamaican heritage as proof of her comfort with ganja, something her father later publicly rebuked her for. This kind of coy, playful banter is perfectly suitable to morning radio, but her disavowal of pot-smoking as a youthful indiscretion feels distinctly out of date. And for politicians who are otherwise so adroit at sticking to their talking points, awkward chitchat in such a relaxed setting feels conspicuous.

Harris’ emphasis on the need for further research can be interpreted as a desire to reclassify cannabis as a Schedule I drug — defined as having no medical potential — to a lower grade. But as a career prosecutor, she’s had a notoriously ambivalent relationship with marijuana. Maybe the admission that she consumed cannabis sits uneasily against her knowledge that so many of her fellow citizens remain trapped in the claws of the criminal-justice system for doing just that.

Kamala Harris is not alone in her weirdness when discussing personal cannabis use, an affliction nearly all her rivals in the still-inchoate race for the Democratic nomination share.

To be fair, they’re evolving. In her current bid for higher office, Harris supports a proposal by Sen. Cory Booker — now one of those rivals — to legalize cannabis at the federal level, specifically as a racial justice issue. This represents a significant shift, though. During the 2014 race for California attorney general, her Republican opponent, Ron Gold, outflanked her on the left by calling for cannabis to be legalized, regulated, and taxed. (This was two years before Proposition 64 did just that.) Arguably, on her way to a comfortable 58-42 victory, Harris had nothing to gain by staking out a still-somewhat-controversial position, just as Gold may have had little to lose by taking a libertarian stance on the issue in a bid for greater name recognition. But that was still an atypical situation in American politics.

Of course, none of this is new. It is President Bill Clinton, that master of triangulation and parsing what the meaning of “is” is, who we can credit with the inhale/didn’t inhale canard — and its persistence as a political shibboleth. In 2016, neither major party candidate fessed up to every having smoked pot, with Hillary Clinton eschewing that particular hot potato with palpable disdain.

“No, I didn’t do it when I was young,” she told CNN in 2014. “I’m not going to start now.”

For his part, the current president is a notorious teetotaler, having long cited the death of his brother Fred from alcoholism. (He still marketed Trump Vodka, though.) Barack Obama admitted to marijuana and cocaine use during his youth, but overall, the 2020 candidates are a squeamish bunch. To be clear, refraining from cannabis use is a perfectly legitimate choice, of course — although for a loquacious vegan with a lengthy pro-cannabis legislative record, Cory Booker’s reticence is somewhat odd. The real issue is that candidates seem to go out of their way to underscore their discomfort with the very topic, as if bungling this simple question were a point of personal pride.

Sen. Bernie Sanders admits to having smoked pot — twice. At a 2016 rally in Michigan, he said, “I’ve done marijuana twice in my life, when I was very young,” earning the kind of benignly condescending cheers his youthful supporters always shower him with. Many of them, though, are almost certainly savvy enough to know that nobody ever says, “I’ve done marijuana.” (Have you ever done wine, Senator? Or taken beer?)

We can probably assume that Drug Warrior, First Class Joe Biden has not consumed marijuana, but we also do not know for sure. Western governors Jay Inslee (Washington) and John Hickenlooper (Colorado) were both against legalization in their states before they were for it — which is somewhat off-putting in Hickenlooper’s case, since he’s a brewer by trade. Sane cannabis policy has been foundational to former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s political career, and as a skateboarder-hacker who played in a punk band, it’s probably safe to assume he has gotten high. But he’s pretty tight-lipped about it, perhaps because law-and-order Texas is one of the 15 states where cannabis remains entirely illegal.

South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg has a shopworn anecdote about the cops catching him with a joint in his hand while he was at Harvard. That unpleasant encounter became a catalyst for his genuinely humane approach to dismantling the architecture of the War on Drugs, but read another way, it feels like a calibrated “pre-buttal” to the more pointed question, “Did you actually smoke it?”

It’s as if their advisers have instructed them to demonstrate their un-hipness, as a way of neutralizing the issue.

This reverse-pandering, a signal telegraphed to a presumptive population of squares who must be assured that their potential leader is one of them, might have been tenable back when cannabis was illegal in all 50 states and only a small fraction of voters approved of decriminalization or medical use. But in 2019, when approximately 62 percent of Americans support legalization, it’s an anachronism as weird and dated as giving Iowa the first crack at winnowing the field of contenders.

What’s causing this lag? Politicians, as a rule, assume the electorate is way more conservative than it is. Studies prove this, and it’s broadly true for Republicans and Democrats alike on issues such as gun control, climate change, and a livable wage. The reasons why are unclear. Maybe elected officials are keenly attuned to the differences between voters (older, whiter) and the adult population generally (younger, browner). Or maybe the fear-based, progress-hating segment of America is the loudest and the best-organized. We all remember “Just Say No.”

But look at the Democratic Party’s profound shift on LGBTQ equality, the other issue on which public attitudes have changed markedly during this decade. As late as 2012, President Barack Obama was either over-cautiously hedging or lying outright when he described his views on same-sex marriage as “evolving.” Only seven years later, when it came time to defend transgender Americans from the Trump administration’s ban on active military service, all 233 House Democrats opposed transphobia — without a single defection. Even though it was a nonbinding resolution, that’s still a stunning turn of events.

You can bet that if pressed to elaborate on that vote, not a single one of those Democrats would giggle and make a dumb joke or an insensitive remark at trans people’s expense. Nor should they, of course. But with hundreds of thousands of Americans incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses, at a time when the nation is seriously rethinking its punitive approach to a substance demonstrably less harmful than alcohol, why should cannabis be any different?