• U.S.

Nation: The Wrong Rx for Peter Bourne

6 minute read

He writes a prescription for trouble and has to resign

Just 36 hours after a swirl of publicity broke last week over White House Health Policy Adviser Dr. Peter Bourne, 38, his letter of resignation landed with an unwelcome thump upon the desk of his already beleaguered friend, Jimmy Carter. As both Bourne and White House aides agreed, the resignation was an attempt to calm a growing furor, but it came too late to prevent front-page newspaper investigation of a politically explosive topic: the illegal use of drugs, including marijuana and cocaine, in the White House and elsewhere in the nation’s capital.

The Bourne affair began as a routine drug arrest. Physical Therapist Toby Long, 26, asked a pharmacist in Woodbridge, Va., a hamlet 25 miles south of Washington, D.C., to fill a prescription. The prescription called for 15 tablets of Quaalude, a potent sedative that is sometimes prescribed for insomnia and frequently abused because of its mythical properties as an aphrodisiac. By chance, a state pharmacy inspector, Kathleen Watt, was in the store and decided to verify Long’s prescription. When she tried to call the doctor who had written it and found that the doctor’s phone had been disconnected. Watt summoned police. The officers learned that the patient’s name on the prescription was fictitious, and arrested Long.

The case suddenly became more than routine once it was known that the doctor who had prescribed the drug was Bourne, Carter’s chief adviser on mental health and narcotics policies. In 1970, while Bourne was working as a psychiatrist in Atlanta, then Governor Carter appointed him to head Georgia’s office of drug abuse. Bourne later became one of the first aides to urge Carter to run for the Presidency. When he was appointed to the $51,000-a-year White House position last year, the President described him as “probably the world’s foremost expert on heroin, cocaine and marijuana—even alcohol—all the drugs that are bad.”

Bourne’s involvement in a drug case, however minor, shocked the White House. At first Carter’s aides agreed to let the psychiatrist try to ride out the controversy. On Wednesday Bourne took a paid leave of absence. He later explained: “I didn’t want to create the kind of situation Bert Lance had. The more you hang in, the more people go after you. I will resolve it and come back.” Bourne also issued a statement justifying his conduct: he had written a prescription for one of his aides, Ellen Metsky, 25, who was suffering from insomnia, and had used a pseudonym to protect her privacy.

Bourne contended that what he had done was “neither legally nor morally wrong.” But legal experts say that he actually violated both federal and state laws by failing to use Metsky’s name on the prescription. In a separate statement, Metsky claimed that, because she was busy, she asked a friend, Toby Long, to have the prescription filled on the way home from her job in Virginia.

But then Columnist Jack Anderson disclosed that Bourne had used cocaine at a party given last year by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a lobbying group that advocates repeal of the penalties for smoking pot. Although Bourne denied Anderson’s account of the incident, TIME has confirmed it. The party was held in a renovated town house in central Washington. At one point, according to some of the guests, Bourne went into a bedroom, sniffed some coke through a rolled-up dollar bill and smoked some marijuana.

Next, White House Press Secretary Jody Powell, under pressure from reporters, disclosed that Bourne had prescribed drugs on ten occasions for ailing White House aides. He also wrote a prescription once for diet pills for Hamilton Jordan, Carter’s pudgy chief adviser. According to Jordan, Carter’s assistants started going to Bourne for prescriptions from time to time during the campaign. Said Jordan: “Maybe it wasn’t smart, but a few of us did just that.”

Meanwhile, Bourne added to his problems by telling New York Times Reporter James Wooten that there was “a high incidence” of marijuana and occasional cocaine use among members of the White House staff. Said Powell: “I don’t have any knowledge of it.” A handful of junior White House aides were later quoted as saying that they did smoke marijuana in “recreational” hours outside the White House, and that they knew of a few colleagues who occasionally used cocaine.

The use of both drugs has become fairly common, even fashionable, among young, upper-middle-class professionals, including some journalists, in Washington and the nation’s larger cities. According to White House aides, Carter sternly disapproves of such drug use. Jody Powell told reporters: “You can be assured that the President would very strongly disapprove of illegal acts by persons in the White House or other citizens.”

As the controversy grew, Bourne again consulted with Jordan and Powell, and this time decided to resign. He did not talk with Carter and was not forced to quit, aides said, but no one tried to talk him out of leaving either. In his letter of resignation, Bourne told Carter that he regarded himself as having become “an instrument through which others attempt to bring disfavor to you.”

At week’s end the hapless Toby Long was free on $3,000 bail, and Prince William County Prosecutor Paul Ebert had threatened to bring charges against Bourne, even though most medical and legal authorities regarded his action as only a technical offense. Said the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Donald Miller: “I just don’t believe that Congress ever contemplated or intended that a single incidence of using a pseudonym to protect the identity of the patient for a relatively small amount of a drug should be a prosecutable offense.”

Bourne was not waiting around to find out. After announcing his resignation, he boarded a plane with his wife and took off for an undisclosed location, leaving the White House to deal with the drug usage questions he had raised.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com