Clinton wasn't the only one who didn't inhale

George Black

April 27, 1992|By George Black

I ENTERED Oxford University -- or "went up," as they like to say -- in 1969, when Bill Clinton was halfway through his stint as a Rhodes scholar. I occasionally smoked marijuana as a student. It wasn't a matter of "experimenting" with it, as it's become routine to say these days. One simply smoked it. I don't think I knew anyone who didn't, any more than I knew anyone who didn't listen to Bob Dylan records.

I inhaled. But I also had several friends who chose not to. Mr. Clinton's insistence that he didn't inhale seemed such a ludicrous trifle when it first came up. But thanks in large measure to the comedian Billy Crystal, the episode has survived the New York primary and become the capstone of the "slick Willie" myth. It seems not to have occurred to Mr. Crystal, the chortling sophisticates in his audience at the Oscars ceremony or the innumerable reporters picking over Governor Clinton's character flaws that "I didn't inhale" may not have been another evasion but a simple statement of fact.

Like all cultural fads, drug use in Britain in the late 1960s had its own elaborate sociology and hierarchy. If one explores this, Mr. Clinton's supposed howler takes on a whole new meaning.

British students probably lagged a year or two behind their American counterparts in widespread drug use. But by 1969 the ancient quadrangles of Oxford were awash with drugs of every kind.

There was a little heroin, but it was feared and ostracized, and widely associated with a spell in "the Warneford" -- the local psychiatric hospital. Especially among literary types, psychedelic drugs had a certain following: LSD, mescaline and the like. Then there was a solid cadre of "speed freaks" -- those who used amphetamines to prepare for an important exam or an all-night session at their books.

But marijuana was Oxford's humble, almost universal, drug of choice. By 1969 it was barely considered risque any more. It involved no bold statement of one's political beliefs or bohemian values. Dinner parties ended routinely with the offer of a joint, as today's would end with the offer of a decaf.

It was probably when "Easy Rider" reached the local cinema, in 1969, that we realized that the trappings of the marijuana culture were a little different in the United States. Here was Jack Nicholson doing something that looked distinctly exotic: The stuff he was smoking was called "grass," and it was rolled into a tiny cigarette, gripped in what seemed to us an odd and affected manner between thumb and forefinger and smoked with much squinting and sucking-in of the cheeks.

Other than the efforts of a few brave souls who defied the inclement Oxford weather and tried to coax marijuana plants out of their window boxes, "grass" was almost unknown. It is safe to assume that Mr. Clinton's exposure to marijuana would have been a l'anglaise. This meant hard-packed cakes of brown cannabis resin, which made its way to Britain from producers in Asia and North Africa. It was familiarly known by a four-letter word that accurately described its appearance.

Cannabis was often rough stuff. It was smoked in a fashion that must seem bizarre to Americans of Mr. Clinton's generation who never spent time in Europe -- first heated, then ground into a pile of coarse tobacco and rolled in three or four gummed-together cigarette papers. The whole monstrous apparatus, topped off with a crude cardboard filter torn from a handy cigarette pack, was 5 or 6 inches long.

You also never quite knew what you were getting with your Afghan Black or Moroccan Red. Much of it burned the throat, seared the lungs and brought tears to the eyes. The harshness of the largely unfiltered tobacco didn't help. Which, in short, is the point. Many people who smoked marijuana socially in Oxford in 1969 simply chose not to inhale, especially if they were not normally tobacco smokers. The Clinton campaign informs me that he has never smoked a cigarette in his life.

Not to inhale, in other words, was a perfectly acceptable option, and it included significant numbers of people. If anything, being a non-inhaler like Mr. Clinton marked you down as a slightly straight-arrow type, definitely one of the cautious and conservative minority in matters of drug use.

There are innumerable reasons to question Bill Clinton's presidential character. His campaign has ignored the 50 percent of Americans who don't vote. He appears to have no clue about foreign policy. Arkansas is an environmental disgrace. But on the matter of not inhaling, give the man a break.

George Black is a contributing editor of the Nation magazine.

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