How Much Reefer Did Barack Obama Toke?

I’m not sure what to make of the NYT feature “Friends Say Drugs Played Only Bit Part for Obama.”

How Much Reefer Did Barack Obama Toke? Max Whittaker for The New York Times Barack Obama, then known as Barry, in a 1978 senior yearbook photo at the Punahou School in Honolulu. At Punahou, a preparatory school that had few black students, he talked with friends about race, wealth and class.

In more than three dozen interviews, friends, classmates and mentors from his high school and Occidental recalled Mr. Obama as being grounded, motivated and poised, someone who did not appear to be grappling with any drug problems and seemed to dabble only with marijuana.

Vinai Thummalapally, a former California State University student who became friendly with Mr. Obama in college, remembered him as a model of moderation — jogging in the morning, playing pickup basketball at the gym, hitting the books and socializing.

“If someone passed him a joint, he would take a drag. We’d smoke or have one extra beer, but he would not even do as much as other people on campus,” recounted Mr. Thummalapally, an Obama fund-raiser. “He was not even close to being a party animal.”

Are there really a significant number of people out there — let alone among the subset of the population that reads the New York Times — who were worried that Barack Obama was a dope fiend?

To the extent Obama has admitted to holding any policy views, I’ve been against them. And I don’t think he’s got the experience I’d like to see in a president. But he’s obviously a bright, organized, motivated fellow with a sterling record of academic achievement. It never really occurred to me that he’d gotten the top of his class at Harvard Law while stoned.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. anjin-san says:

    Obama has been refreshingly candid on the subject. The percentage of people who came up in that ear who had at least some experience with drugs has to be very, very high, and he is not trying to rewrite his personal history.

    Obama seems like someone who had his act together at a very early age. The weakness of this attack shows a bit of desperation on the part of his opponents in both parties.

  2. James Joyner says:

    The weakness of this attack shows a bit of desperation on the part of his opponents in both parties.

    I don’t think the piece is an attack so much as odd. Indeed, to the extent there’s criticism, it’s that Obama OVERSTATED his drug use in his autobiography.

  3. Pjsbro says:


  4. Triumph says:

    Indeed, to the extent there’s criticism, it’s that Obama OVERSTATED his drug use in his autobiography.

    I totally concur. That was one of the weirdest pieces of “journalism” I’ve seen.

    The basic gist of the article is that Obama “played up” his drug use in his first autobiography (even though the article acknowledges that the only mention of drug use was on 1 or 2 pages) and the Times found all of these people who claimed that Obama didn’t do a lot of drugs.

    Thus, Obama is a lying exaggerator.

  5. just me says:

    I look forward to the day when presidential politics don’t involve what one did or didn’t do in high school or college.

    If Obama or some other candidate was currently a pothead or drug user, that would be one thing, but what he did 20-30 years ago hardly seems applicable to whether or not he can lead now.

    I don’t really get what the purpose of this article is-he has already admitted he smoked pot, and at least admitted he inhaled.

    Give it about 10 more years, and this kind of story will be totally moot, or the “I never smoked pot” crowd will be the one ridiculed for lying.

  6. yetanotherjohn says:

    It’s relatively simple. Who did the NYT endorse for president? Democrats are shocked at the number of racists (those who don’t back Obama) and misogynists (those who don’t back Hillary) there are in the democratic party and that the Clintons will say or do anything to defeat those who he opposes (golly gee, he will even say things that aren’t true). When the NYT decides what is best for this country, then journalism takes a back seat to politics. NYT thinks Clinton is better for the country, so Obama can expect to see more articles like this.

  7. John says:

    “Journalism” and NYT in same sentence? How Billary of you! 😉

  8. amabo says:

    According to the article, not only did Obama not partake of drugs, he was a “model of moderation,” “hitting the books and socializing,” etc. etc.

    Seems to me the NYT is trying to head off the drug story before it gains steam. Just another puff piece for a candidate whose resume needs much puffing.

  9. anjin-san says:

    Just another puff piece for a candidate whose resume needs much puffing.

    If resumes meant a heck of a lot, GHW Bush would have been the greatest president in history, instead of depressingly average, at best.

    Bill Clinton and Pres. Bush had similar resumes, Clinton was a damn good president and Bush is awful beyond comprehension.

  10. Jim says:

    Obama “leaked” his drug use to avoid being Swift Boated by the loony right.

    Good for him.

    Hey, did you notice he was half-black? Maybe there’s an angle to be exploited there….

  11. fredw says:

    How can anyone who thinks Bush is a good president act like they care if the candidate ever used drugs. Bush was a known druggie and would only say that he had been sober for 7 years when he ran in 2000. How many drunk driving or drug related incidents has Obama been associated with? Bush? On the other hand, maybe we have learned the lesson about electing drunks to office.

  12. sam says:



  13. Jay Wills says:

    “It never really occurred to me that he’d gotten the top of his class at Harvard Law while stoned.”

    IIRC, he didn’t get to the “top of his class.” Although Harvard Law traditionally reserved the Editor in Chief’s position for the student with the highest class ranking, the year before Obama got that position, the student editors voted to do away with that type of selection in favor of a popular vote for the position. So, actually, he was the first affirmative action Editor in Chief of the Law Review, but not the “top of his class.”

  14. DL says:

    He may have been the top of his class at passing out street money in chicago though. I suppose that qualifies one to be the Democrat Presidential candidate, which is all about handing out someone else’s money.

    This whole thing on Obama’s drug use appears to me as Hillary stuff.

  15. Uncle Pinky says:

    Still waiting for a reporter to ask Hillary about her drug use. Perhaps someone did, but I did not see it. If prior use is going to be used as a tactic why can’t we get a Hillary “I did not inhale” moment?

    It just seems odd that illicit substances are a big deal for everyone else. They’ll ask her about her husband’s use, but I can not recall anyone asking her. If I’m wrong (it happens more often than I’d like to admit) it’d be nice if somebody could shoot me a link. Busy day. No time to research.

  16. glasnost says:

    And I don’t think he’s got the experience I’d like to see in a president.

    A man’s habits of success or failure are rather more important than the fields in which he achieves them. It’s a rare presidential candidate that has prior experience being president. This criterion is a very shallow one. We have a democracy, not a seniority system, and for good reason. Experience counts for a lot less in managerial tasks then in manual ones.

  17. Beldar says:

    Further to Jay Wills’ comment above, from a 1990 NYT article:

    Mr. Obama was elected after a meeting of the review’s 80 editors that convened Sunday and lasted until early this morning, a participant said.

    Until the 1970’s the editors were picked on the basis of grades, and the president of the Law Review was the student with the highest academic rank. Among these were Elliot L. Richardson, the former Attorney General, and Irwin Griswold, a dean of the Harvard Law School and Solicitor General under Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon.

    That system came under attack in the 1970’s and was replaced by a program in which about half the editors are chosen for their grades and the other half are chosen by fellow students after a special writing competition. The new system, disputed when it began, was meant to help insure that minority students became editors of The Law Review.

    Harvard, like a number of other top law schools, no longer ranks its law students for any purpose including a guide to recruiters.

    I haven’t done anything approaching thorough, much less exhaustive research, on Obama’s grades. I’m also unsure whether he published a student note while on the HLR, or why he didn’t pursue a judicial clerkship (which, as this article notes, would certainly have been among his options, almost regardless of his grades).

    Even getting onto the Harvard Law Review through its writing competition is a significant accomplishment, and being voted and serving as its president is also. It certainly puts Obama in vastly more exclusive company than John Kerry was in (who had marginal grades at Yale College and went to Boston College Law School because he couldn’t get in at Harvard or Yale, and didn’t make law review or graduate with honors even from there). But it doesn’t mean he was at the “top of his class” academically.

  18. Beldar says:

    Ah, would that I had waited before hitting that “publish” button.

    A March 2004 article in Salon from famous Harvard Law School graduate (and author of the best-selling non-fiction book “One-L” about his experience there), legal novelist, and renowned Chicago trial lawyer Scott Turow says:

    Obama’s biography is both intriguing and inspiring, an American story for the 21st century. The résumé detail that initially caught wide attention was his election in 1990 as the first African-American president (that is, editor in chief) of the Harvard Law Review, the premier legal academic publication in the United States. Banish any lurking thought of an affirmative-action wind at his back. Exams at Harvard Law School are graded blind, and Obama graduated magna cum laude (also unlike me.) He has taught for many years at the University of Chicago Law School, along with many of the country’s preeminent legal scholars.

    The MCL (a/k/a “High Honors,” but not “Highest Honors,” which would be summa cum laude) suggests top 10% or thereabouts, and would also be consistent with him having originally “graded on” to the HLR, rather than necessarily having “written on.”

    Compare, e.g., Hillary Clinton (who flunked the District of Columbia Bar Exam notwithstanding her degree from Yale Law School); or Joe Biden (who graduated 76th out of 85 from a much less prestigious law school, even after being allowed to retake the class he’d been flunked from when he was caught plagiarizing).