When it was discovered in July that White House drug expert Dr. Peter Bourne had used a fictitious name on a prescription for Quaalude to guard the privacy of an aide, Ellen Metsky, the controversy forced him to resign his $51,000-a-year post. It also touched off a storm of speculation about the use of illegal drugs in Washington and in the White House itself. No one would appear to be in a better position to know the truth than English-born psychiatrist Bourne. Educated at Emory and Stanford universities, he was picked by then Governor Carter to head Georgia’s drug abuse program. Bourne was one of the first to urge that Carter seek the Presidency and was rewarded with his White House post in early 1977. No criminal charges have been brought against Bourne, 39, and probably none will be, for what many consider to be a technical offense. Bourne, who lives near the White House with his wife, Mary King, deputy director of ACTION, talked about his fall from power and the D.C. drug scene with Clare Crawford of PEOPLE.
Do you feel bitter about losing your job?
I see it very much as an opportunity. I’m fine. I’m relaxed. In many ways, I had not realized how many stresses I was under—until I was away from the White House. I feel I did some things there that will have lasting impact. My leaving won’t change that.
Have you talked to Jimmy Carter since you left?
I talked to the President right after my resignation, and told him at that time that I felt it was best if I didn’t talk to him again until all the legal questions had been resolved.
What was your last meeting like?
I did not meet with him. We talked by phone. I’d characterize it as a discussion between people who’ve been friends for seven or eight years—the circumstances were obviously difficult for both of us.
How have others reacted?
Finding out how many people were my friends has been rather stunning to me, an extraordinary experience. I have been deluged by more than 400 letters of support from all kinds of people—from Margaret Mead to Werner Erhard to Gloria Steinem.
Did the press treat you fairly?
There were certain areas in which the emphasis bothered me a little. For instance, Quaalude is a legitimate sedative prescribed by physicians more than 1.5 million times last year. There was a preoccupation among many journalists that Quaalude, like other controlled substances, is also subject to abuse. They left the implication that perhaps the drug I prescribed was for something other than legitimate medical reasons. That bothered me. But in general, for every unfair story, there was one that was more than fair.
What was it like to be at the center of a big story?
Well, it’s very hard to wake up at 6 o’clock in the morning and see press standing outside the door and to see them still there when you go to bed at midnight.
Do you now have any sympathy for the Watergate figures?
I have sympathy for anybody who goes through this kind of experience. It’s also given me more sympathy for the press, because I learned the incredible competitive pressures reporters are under.
Would you have gotten into trouble if you were in private practice and had made out this prescription?
Technical infractions of the law like this occur daily and no question is ever raised. But if you’re in the White House you can’t afford to have an unpaid parking ticket, you can’t afford to jaywalk, you can’t afford any kind of public conduct that somebody can point a finger at. This question would never have been raised had I not been in a position of great visibility.
When did you begin to sense trouble?
I received a call from the police department in Manassas, Va. where a friend of Ellen Metsky had taken the prescription to be filled. I think initially the officer was concerned that somebody other than the person to whom the prescription was written was getting it filled. He arrested the young woman. I then talked to several lawyers, including White House counsel Bob Lipshutz. One said he didn’t understand why I was worried about something so trivial.
When did you realize he was wrong?
The real turning point came when the Washington Post ran a story about it on the front page. I decided to take a leave of absence, at least until it could be resolved. That evening I received a call from columnist Jack Anderson’s people saying they had been told I used drugs at a party given by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML)in 1977. I issued a denial. The next day there were all sorts of incredible stories. The New York Daily News even pursued a story that I was involved in a $9 million international narcotics smuggling ring in 1973. It became clear that a leave of absence was not going to be adequate, and I decided to resign.
What did happen at that NORML party?
In 1976 Keith Stroup, head of NORML, asked me to talk to its convention about what federal drug policy would likely be in a Carter administration. While I was speaking, people were smoking marijuana in the back of the room. I found that a most unacceptable and embarrassing situation. So last December when I was asked again to speak to the NORML convention, I declined. Keith was concerned that it would look as if there was a rift between NORML and the Administration. Because we had enjoyed their support in the past, I agreed to go to their party. I was quite concerned that drugs were being widely used throughout the place, so I left after an hour at most.
Didn’t some newspaper reporters at the party say that they saw you using marijuana and cocaine?
Yes, but it’s not true. I did not use drugs, although they were everywhere.
Did you see drugs being used at the White House or, aside from the NORML party, elsewhere in Washington?
In 18 months in Washington I don’t think I had ever been any other place drugs were being used. I’ve never seen anybody in the White House use them.
But you were quoted as saying there is widespread use of drugs among members of the White House staff.
I repeat, I have no personal acquaintance with anyone in the White House using drugs. Actually, I would have been the last person to be told, because of my responsibilities in that area. And yet I know that a New York Times reporter talked to six or seven lower-level people from the White House who said they used drugs. We have a situation in this country now where most people in a certain age range have at least tried marijuana. One out of four Americans—47 million people—have used it. Another survey showed that 26 percent of the population takes some psychoactive drug—sleeping pills, narcotics, whatever. Several hundred million prescriptions were written for various controlled substances last year—57 million for Valium alone. We’re a very drug-taking society.
Have you taken any drugs since joining the White House staff?
I haven’t used drugs at all while I’ve been in the White House. I rarely use any drug, let alone illegal ones. I said in my Senate confirmation hearings that I had tried marijuana in the past, but it would be ludicrous for me to be in the White House with this area as my responsibility and use drugs.
Which drug most concerns you?
We put heroin at the top of the list, because by far the largest number of people in this country who die from drugs die from it. The spectacular success we’ve had in reducing heroin addiction hasn’t been adequately told. In the last year and a half, overdose deaths have gone down 49 percent, crime has gone down about 10 percent and we have the lowest level of heroin addiction in 10 years.
Which drug is No. 2?
Barbiturates. These drugs, particularly mixed with alcohol, or misused as sleeping pills, kill more than 2,000 people a year. We have reduced that rate by 27 percent. I have made a very serious effort to discourage physicians from prescribing barbiturates, which is one of the reasons I didn’t prescribe them for Ellen Metsky.
What about cocaine and marijuana?
Figures suggest that last year about 20 people died from cocaine. Virtually no one dies from marijuana, but I think we’ve perhaps underestimated its potential damage to people under 18.
Did the controversy over the Mexican government’s policy of spraying marijuana with the herbicide paraquat contribute to your departure?
The paraquat issue was a constant burden to me over the past year. Some people, like those at NORML, seized on this as a symbolic issue, saying the federal government should not try to restrict the availability of marijuana. In fact, there is no evidence that anybody in this country has had any adverse physical reaction from the very small level of paraquat used.
What are your plans now?
I’ve been offered a job as the medical director of a major pharmaceutical corporation. I’ve been approached by a couple of foundations and by universities. I don’t want to make any decisions too quickly. I want to stay here in Washington. I plan to do a good deal of speaking, and I’m finishing a book that I started a long time ago—a history of my relationship with President Carter.
Why do you want to stay in Washington?
My wife’s job and career are here. I can’t believe people would think I’d uproot her. I also spent a good deal of energy convincing Jimmy Carter that he should run for President and a lot of time developing strategy for his campaign. We spent four years working to get him into the White House, and whether or not I’m physically there too, I still feel that I’m very much part of this Administration.