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March 31, 2009 -- AlterNet (US Web)

Kids Do The Darndest Things: Joe Biden's Cocaine Dilemma

By Tony Newman, director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

I received a text message at 11 p.m. on Saturday while I was walking to a party in Brooklyn. The message was about a "breaking story": Ashley Biden, daughter of Vice President Joe Biden, has allegedly been caught on video using cocaine. My friends know that I work at the Drug Policy Alliance, so I often get e-mails or calls when celebrities or elected officials have some drug-use drama.

My first thought was shit, again? It was less than two months ago that Michael Phelps face was plastered all over the media for the Bong Hit Seen Around the World. While walking down the street, with my own vodka buzz on, a range of other thoughts started racing through my head.

Part of me is thinking of the irony. As senator in the late 1980s, Biden was a cheerleader for the drug war. He played a major role in creating the drug czar's office and in enacting the draconian mandatory minimum sentences that have filled our prisons with nonviolent drug law offenders.

It's practically a page right out of the Traffic screenplay. If the video proves to be legitimate, Ashley Biden could join Noelle Bush, Rush Limbaugh, Patrick Kennedy, Ted Haggard and the many other examples that prove drug use and abuse can touch every family.

The next feeling is uneasiness. When stories like this hit families, especially political ones, it can break in two ways.

On one hand, I can envision Vice President Biden, realizing that drug use is so widespread that it even touches his daughter, would become more sympathetic to other people who use drugs. There are hundreds of thousands people behind bars serving long prison sentences on drug charges. The realization that other people's kids are living in a cage for doing the same thing that his daughter did could be a transformative experience.

In recent years, Biden has championed a number of progressive drug-policy reforms -- like introducing legislation to completely eliminate the 100-to-1 crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity and rolling back the mandatory minimums he favored in the late 1980s. Perhaps his daughter's experience will strengthen his resolve.

On the other hand, these experiences can cause people to move into another direction. When Jimmy Carter was president, his administration seriously considered marijuana decriminalization. There is even footage of Carter and others in his administration saying that the laws against marijuana are more harmful than the drug.

But before the law was changed, someone in his drug-policy staff was outed for doing cocaine at a D.C. party -- and the issue of decriminalizing marijuana never came up again.

I don't know the details of Ashley Biden and her alleged cocaine use. If she does have a drug problem, then it's likely that she'll gain access to the best treatment options available. It would be terrific if this led Joe Biden to advocate for treatment on demand for all those who need it in this country.

That said, there are millions of people who have tried cocaine, or use it occasionally, who don't develop a problem. If this is true in Ashley Biden's case, she would strike another blow to the myth that if you try cocaine you will become an addict and before you know it end up unemployed and homeless.

It also raises the question about whether we should be arresting and incarcerating -- or even forcing people like her into treatment through drug courts -- when she may not even have a drug problem.

Too many people, including Joe Biden, automatically want the alternative to incarceration to be coerced treatment under the supervision of the criminal justice system. Maybe we should just leave alone people whose drug use isn't harming anyone else.

If Ashley Biden truly doesn't have a drug problem and her biggest mistake was to allow herself to be filmed by a so-called friend trying to make money off her trust, I hope she doesn't misdiagnosis the problem and solution.

I hope that her and her father's crisis management strategy will not lead to tearful apologies where she claims to have a drug problem and promises to go to treatment to go get help.

Given Joe Biden's high-profile views on the drug war, they also shouldn't claim that this is a personal issue and that they want their privacy.

I would hope instead that Ashley Biden's response and action is to join the millions of people who are challenging the ignorance and irrationality of locking up hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens because of a nonviolent drug offense.

If Ashley and Joe Biden can use this embarrassing experience to become involved in changing our inhumane polices, then the Biden family, and our country, will be better for it.

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