MIAMI BEACH — Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg's admission that he once used marijuana became so damaging to him so quickly that several politicians--including two Democratic presidential candidates--suddenly confessed that they had used marijuana, too, apparently hoping these confessions will limit their own vulnerability and perhaps stimulate a healthy debate on the issue.
On the day Ginsburg was withdrawing his nomination to the Supreme Court, citing the "clamor" over the marijuana controversy, Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr., a Democratic presidential candidate, announced at a press conference here that both he and his wife had smoked marijuana when they were younger, but that they regretted it and felt strongly that young people should not try the drug.
Hours later, another Democratic candidate, former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, said he did not think Gore's admission should disqualify him for President and confessed that he too had tried marijuana 20 years ago.
Also stepping forward on the issue were Democratic Sen. Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, who said he took "several puffs off a marijuana cigarette" many years ago and "didn't like it"; and conservative GOP Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, who told an Atlanta TV station Friday that he had once smoked marijuana 19 years ago but that it did not have an effect on him.
Gore's admission, made in an effort to head off stories that might damage his candidacy, was the first time a major presidential candidate has talked about his past drug use.
He said he hoped now there would be more candid discussion of the issue.
"We have to be more open in discussing this problem," Gore said, if parents are going to be able to communicate with their children about the dangers of drugs.
Gore's admission pointed up what a generational issue marijuana use has become.
As the 39-year-old Gore put it, "There is a difference between the way people of my generation look at (marijuana) and the way older Americans look at it. I'm not saying that is the way it should be, but that's the way it is. . . . "
Gore said he had used marijuana "once or twice in college, in the Army (in Vietnam) and once or twice in graduate school," but that he had not done it in "approximately 15 years."
He also said: "I have not used anything beyond that and it was never a significant part of my life. I wish I had not done it but I did, as did tens of millions in my generation."
Gore said he did not think his past marijuana use "has any bearing on my fitness for office."
Has Become 'Relevant'
But he said that after initially thinking reporters' interest in the matter was inappropriate, he had concluded that "I understand how with the Ginsburg issue, the context has suddenly changed and what was irrelevant before has become relevant."
Babbitt, meanwhile, said in Iowa that he too had used marijuana, back in 1966 and 1967 while working in the civil rights movement in the South, but not since then.
His spokesman, Michael McCurry, said his candidate is treating the matter lightly because his use of marijuana happened 20 years ago.
"Probably the public does have the right to know if a candidate for high office is high," McCurry said, using the slang description of marijuana's mood-altering effect.
"But that doesn't seem to be the issue here. They are asking about stuff that goes way back."
The other Democratic candidates, Illinois Sen. Paul Simon, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt and Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, said in response to questions that they have never used marijuana but did not think past usage should disqualify a candidate.
Deny Drug Use
Three Republican candidates--Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV and New York Rep. Jack Kemp--all of whom were appearing at a convention of the Homebuilders Assn. of Iowa Saturday, said they had never used any illegal drug. Vice President George Bush, campaigning elsewhere in Iowa, also said he had never used marijuana.
After Gore made his disclosure before the start of the Florida Democratic Party convention in Miami Beach, he described telling his children the news.
Gore said he told his four children of his marijuana use for the first time Saturday morning, before the press conference.
"My 5-year-old son said, 'Daddy, did it make you sick?' and I said no."
Gore also said: "My wife and I have often told our kids why (using drugs) is a bad idea. And, like a lot of parents, we were hoping they would not ask us (if they themselves had used drugs)."
Gore said his wife, Tipper, had "authorized" him to tell reporters that she also had used marijuana in college.
Wife's Controversial Campaign
Political professionals said privately that her admission could prove embarrassing to Gore, because Tipper Gore has led a controversial campaign against rock music lyrics that allude to sex and drugs.