Dr. Peter Bourne is on a high these days. The self-described “first drug czar”—the first with full control over both the punishment and the treatment sides of federal policy—left the Carter administration under a cloud in 1978, accused of snorting cocaine at a party thrown by none other than NORML, the have-a-hit marijuana lobby. He hotly denied the charge, but not his attendance—and that was enough. The scandal ended the only truce in the nation’s 40-year war on drugs, a moment when Bourne—echoing the president and a majority of the country at the time—tried to end criminal penalties against pot.
Thirty-four years later, Washington hasn’t budged on the issue—but the states have, much to Bourne’s delight. Twelve now treat a personal stash like a minor traffic offense. Seventeen support medical marijuana. And this fall, if current polling holds, voters in Colorado and Washington will legalize the plant, making pot nearly as acceptable for adult recreation as Ping-Pong. “It’s quite gratifying,” says Bourne, speaking by phone from his farm in the English countryside.
But the urbane British-born psychiatrist is also disappointed. In a rare interview, he says the Obama administration’s approach to marijuana is “totally insane.” He thinks “they should be bolder,” urging Congress to decriminalize and considering an executive order if necessary. Currently, what they’re doing—raiding medical-marijuana dispensaries, defending pot’s classification as a drug as bad as meth—“doesn’t make any sense at all.”
Bourne may sound like a child of the ’60s—and he is. He smoked dope at Stanford during the Summer of Love, wrote an addiction column under the pen name Dr. Aquarius, and in 1974 praised cocaine as “acutely pleasurable.” Today, at 72, he drinks only “the finest of wines” at Oxford University, where he is a visiting fellow at Green Templeton College. He thinks pot is “overrated” as medicine and should be discouraged in general, which is why he opposes jail time for pot smokers but supports civil penalties, at least at the federal level.
The states, meanwhile, should have control over their own pot policies, he says. Just as the Obama administration allows “Neanderthal states” to continue locking up smokers, Bourne believes it would be “wrongheaded” to fight those who want to legalize marijuana, whatever regulatory model they choose. He thinks the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol ballot initiative in Colorado “makes a lot of sense,” even if, in practice, it were to become Sell Pot Like Cigarettes. “The tobacco companies have set up model programs, so that if it were to be legalized, they could immediately jump into marketing,” he says, citing “contingency plans” shared with him by executives who visited the White House.
But by far his biggest concern is a Romney regime—and another move rightward, à la Reagan. “It would mean a lot of people being victimized,” he says. And for what? “Nobody dies from marijuana use.”