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‘Benign’ drug of the ‘70s is a scourge in the ‘90s

SHARE ‘Benign’ drug of the ‘70s is a scourge in the ‘90s

It was not just the polyester clothes, effusive hair styles and disco music that created a vast cultural distance between the 1970s and the late 1990s. It also was public attitudes about drugs.

As Texas Gov. George W. Bush scrambles to answer questions about whether he used cocaine, he has become the latest politician to stumble into the mine field created by the dramatic public shift since the 1970s in how casual drug use was perceived.There was a time in America, in the 1970s, when it appeared even official Washington teetered on the brink of declaring cocaine harmless.

In 1977, Dr. Peter Bourne, who was President Jimmy Carter's top anti-drug official, said, "Cocaine is probably the most benign of illicit drugs. At least as strong a case could be made for legalizing it as for legalizing marijuana."

It was a time when Newsweek magazine could publish a story, as it did in 1977, which said, "cocaine probably causes no significant mental or physical damage, and a number of researchers have concluded that it can be safer than liquor and cigarettes when used discriminately."

Bourne later admitted using cocaine at a party for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Keith Stroup, executive director of NORML, who has been involved in the group's efforts to decriminalize drugs since the 1970s, said, "The things Peter Bourne was saying about cocaine represented the thinking of a lot of progressive drug officials then."

A national survey of 18- to 25-year-olds taken in 1979 showed that 70 percent had taken illegal drugs and half were regular drug users. At least 20 percent admitted cocaine use.

"The peak year was 1979," Stroup recalled. "My impression is that in the late 1970s society as a whole was a bit more permissive about marijuana and cocaine."

Stroup noted that Carter's chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, was investigated inconclusively for suspected cocaine use.

Peter Bensinger, who was the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration during the Ford and Carter administrations, said, "There was an identification of cocaine as a jet set drug, there was an element of society and even of government that was somewhat tolerant of the drug."

Bensinger added, "I don't think the health hazards of cocaine or marijuana were as apparent. But the DEA never looked upon it as insignificant. We were making cocaine cases then."

Jill Jonnes, who wrote on America's drug history in a book called, "Hep-Cats, Narcs and Pipe Dreams," noted that in 1975, the Ford administration issued a "white paper" on drugs which said, "cocaine, as currently used, usually does not result in serious social consequences such as crime, hospital emergency room admissions, or death."

Jonnes wrote, "cocaine was declared officially not worth worrying about."

Bush's most recent statement indicated that he had not used any illegal substance since at least 1974, a year in which Bush would have turned 28. He has declined comment about his earlier days.

Some other presidential candidates who were young adults in the late 1960s and early 1970s have admitted some illegal drug use -- Vice President Al Gore said in 1987 that he smoked marijuana "a few times" in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Gore likened the use to drinking "moonshine in prohibition."

But cocaine is seen as a different matter. Few politicians have come forward and admitted using it.

The problem for politicians who may have used cocaine in the 1970s is the dramatic shift in public attitudes, experts said.

By the mid-1980s, it had become clear that cocaine was highly addictive for some people. Several high profile entertainers and athletes either died of cocaine overdoses or admitted it had wrecked their careers.

By the time George Bush became president in the late 1988s, a strong anti-drug stand was as critical to politicians as being for mom and apple pie.