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Walter Armstrong Walter Armstrong

Here’s How 10 Politicians Sweated the “Did-You-Smoke-Marijuana” Question

Eric Holder admits it—Marco Rubio won't. Politicians' answers to this very simple question have always been slippery.

3 Substance

In an interview with the Huffington Post today, Attorney General Eric Holder talks about drug policy—in the context of his visit to Charleston, South Carolina to push the Justice Department’s “Smart on Crime” initiative, which includes allowing some drug offenders to avoid harsh mandatory minimum sentences.

Huff Po didn’t shrink from asking Holder if he had ever smoked weed, and Holder didn’t flinch: “Yeah, I certainly have said in my four, five, whatever number confirmation hearings I’ve had that you fill out the forms, that I had ‘youthful experimentation’—I think was the phrase that we were told to use—when I was in college,” he said.

Arguably it would have been just as notable if the nation’s leading law-enforcement official had said no. Holder, who was born in 1951 and graduated from Columbia in 1971, is a member of the Baby Boomer generation that popularized drug use: By 1985, 33% of Americans said that they had tried marijuana, according to Gallup. In 1999, the rate was 34%—in 2013, 38%.

Holder’s reference to “youthful experimentation” as the trick phrase to make drug use acceptable is refreshingly candid. He almost seems to be calling out the hypocrisy not only of this convention but of the entire notion that only crazy kids would dare have a spliff.

Compare Holder’s response to that of Marco Rubio, the Florida senator, who was asked the pot question in an interview with the National Journal on Monday. “If I tell you that I haven’t, you won’t believe me. If I tell you that I did, then kids will look up to me and say, ‘Well, I can smoke marijuana, because look how he made it.’…At this point, it’s irrelevant.”

It’s not hard to tell that Holder isn’t campaigning for higher office and Rubio is. Here are 10 more notable answers to the pot question from politicians, most of whom were in campaign mode.

1. Bill Clinton: “When I was in England, I experimented with marijuana a time or two, and didn’t like it. I didn’t inhale and I didn’t try it again.” (1992, during his first run for president)

2. Dana Rorabacher: “I did everything but drink the bong water when I was young.” (1996, during the California Republican congressman’s appearance on Politically Incorrect)

3. Barak Obama: “Look, when I was a kid, I inhaled—frequently. That was the point.” (2006, during his term in the US Senate)

4. Sarah Palin: “I can’t claim a Bill Clinton and say that I never inhaled.” (2008, during her vice-presidential campaign)

5. Howard Dean: “Yes.” John Kerry: “Yes.” John Edwards: “Yes.” (2003, during a debate when the three Democrats were competing for the presidential candidacy and were asked “Which of you are ready to admit to having used marijuana in the past?” All three chose not to elaborate.)

6. Joe Lieberman: “I have a reputation for giving unpopular answers at Democratic debates. I never used marijuana. Sorry!” (during the same 2003 debate)

7. Michael Bloomberg: “You bet I did. And I enjoyed it.” (2002, during his first New York City mayoral bid)

8. Newt Gingrich: “That was a sign that we were alive and in graduate school in that era.” (1995, at the end of his stint as House Minority whip)

9. Rick Santorum: “It was something that I’m not proud of, but I did. And said it was something that I wish I hadn’t done.…I would encourage people not to do so. It was not all it’s made up to be.” (2011, during his campaign for the Republican presidential candidate)

10. George W. Bush: “I wouldn’t answer the marijuana question. You know why? Because I don’t want some little kid doing what I tried. You gotta understand, I want to be president.…I haven’t denied anything. I am just not going to answer those questions.” (2005, during his campaign for re-election, in a private conversation that was secretly taped by a friend and then made public)