Trey Radel holds a press conference at his district office in Florida hours after pleading guilty to possession of cocaine and getting sentenced to a year of probation. Photo by Reuters/Steve Nesius
On October 29, a 37-year-old Republican Congressman named Henry "Trey" Radel fucked up. He bought $260 worth of coke while at a restaurant in DC’s trendy Dupont Circle neighborhood, but the guy selling it turned out to be an undercover cop who was part of a targeted sting operation. When news of the “cocaine Congressman” was reported by Politico this week, a predictable sequence of events played out: a guilty plea, probation but no prison time, and an announcement that he has a drug problem and plans to take a leave of absence from his job while he seeks treatment for it. Presumably he’ll come back eventually, tell the press that he’s in recovery thanks to his family and the grace of God, and the Tea Partiers who elected him in Florida may even love him all the more for having faced down his demons so publicly.
Radel is hardly an important DC figure—he only got elected last year, and before this coke incident he was most known for loving hip-hop and making his own beats. His personal drama is mostly a sideshow, a story that will be forgotten then occasionally brought up as a funny anecdote: “Hey, remember that Tea Party dude who loved Tupac and got caught with cocaine?” It’s not even a story that lends itself to puffed-up allegations of Republican hypocrisy, since Radel has been broadly in favor of reforming failed drug war policies. (Though he did support drug testing for food stamp recipients, so maybe he’s into some icky poor-people-shouldn’t-do-drugs-but-rich-folks-can shit.) But one thing this incident shows is just how strangely the legal system works when it comes to drugs.
Congressmen have been using drugs casually for centuries. Not necessarily illegal drugs, but drugs all the same. Like most rich men of their era, the Founding Fathers took snuff—or snortable powdered tobacco—which sounds fucking disgusting. Then there was the rich tradition of power brokers in Washington being Mad Men–level alcoholics. In an long interview published this week by Politico Magazine, Bobby Barker, who was a political fixer on Capitol Hill in the 50s and 60s, tells countless stories of drunks with power: There was Senator Burnett Mayback, a Democrat from South Carolina who “had to have about a half a tumbler of bourbon when he woke up in the morning”; Senator Everett Dirksen, an Illinois Republican who had a full bar in his office; Senator Herman Tallmadge, a conservative Democrat from Georgia with a “monumental alcohol problem” who once got so drunk he couldn’t show up at an event in support Lyndon Johnson… The list goes on.
Those were the days of more or less condoned alcoholism and sometimes insane levels of debauchery. Barker also talked about the time Ellen Rometsch, a suspected East German spy, went to the White House and gave JFK “the best head-job he’d ever had.” But it’s not like we’ve elected a bunch of choirboys since then, it’s just that now we live in a world where the media is expected to report on every facet of every public figure’s life, and the consequences of misbehavior are terrible and swift. That might explain why Radel is the first member of Congress ever convicted of cocaine use. It’s not that politicians don’t have a bipartisan inclination toward drugs, but they know that if they ever got caught there’d be hell to pay. So they avoid illegal drugs, or they’re just really careful, which isn’t to say they don’t still party—there’s that story about members of Congress reeking of alcohol while working on the eve of the government shutdown, and all the rumors of John Boehner being a boozehound.
Maybe unsurprisingly, there are a fair number of recovering addicts in Congress. Yet the criminal justice system, which presumably legislators have some control over, has treated addicts incredibly poorly. Despite some reforms, including a law reducing the disparity between sentences for crack and coke users that came into effect in 2011, you can still be sent to prison for simple possession. Radel was trying to buy 3.5 grams from the cop—under federal law he could have gone to prison for a year and been hit with a $1,000 fine for possessing that amount. Instead, the judge gave him straight probation, either because the judge was having a good day or because Radel is an elected official and an upstanding citizen. If he had been black, had bought crack instead of powder cocaine, and was in a rougher part of DC, I wonder if the authorities would have been so lenient.
Radel’s story seems to have a mostly happy ending—he says he’s getting treatment for his problem, he’s not in prison, and I haven’t seen any antidrug screeds alleging that his cocaine use makes him unfit to be a Congressman or a decent human being. But his case underscores the basic fact that everyone does drugs; what happens to you afterward depends on what drugs you were doing and who you are.
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