Judge Thomas himself expressed "regret" for his youthful dalliance with the drug.
"I think it's pretty obvious that kids should know you shouldn't even try it once," he told reporters yesterday as he made the rounds on Capitol Hill, visiting the offices of senators expected to vote on his nomination in September.
A four-sentence statement from the White House, issued Wednesday night, conceded that the nominee "took several puffs on a marijuana cigarette in college and perhaps once in law school" about 20 years ago, adding, "He believes it was a mistake and never repeated it."
The White House statement, in response to queries from the Washington Post, said that Judge Thomas disclosed this to the FBI during the background check it conducted in 1989, when he was nominated for his current seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals. The information was passed on to the Senate Judiciary Committee -- the same panel that must now review his Supreme Court nomination.
"We view this matter as inconsequential," the White House statement concluded.
Yesterday, lawmakers did not seem inclined to disagree. "It's not going to affect anyone's vote," said Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo., who has become Judge Thomas' de facto Senate sponsor.
Judiciary panel Democrats echoed Mr. Danforth's sentiments. "I don't think it's of any significance," said Sen. Howell Heflin, D-Ala.
Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., said, "It's no issue, and it's no consequence. Casual [marijuana] use was part of life in college in those days."
Judge Thomas graduated from Holy Cross College in 1971 and Yale Law School in 1974.
The White House acted swiftly to quash comparisons of Judge Thomas to fellow federal appeals Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg, ** selected by President Ronald Reagan for a Supreme Court seat on Oct. 29, 1987, after the Senate defeated the nomination of Judge Robert H. Bork. Judge Ginsburg withdrew nine days later after admitting he had smoked marijuana.
Judge Ginsburg, however, used marijuana while a professor at Harvard Law School. Moreover, he had not revealed this information to either the FBI or the White House at a time when policy called for disclosure of any use of illegal drugs in the five years preceding a nomination. Judge Ginsburg's drug use was subsequently disclosed by a reporter.
Administration officials said the president's chief counsel, C. Boyden Gray, and Attorney General Richard L. Thornburg were aware of Judge Thomas' marijuana experimentation before President Bush named him to succeed retiring Justice Thurgood Marshall.
Throughout the day, it was Judge Thomas' conservative juridical views that continued to attract the most interest among senators. The judge, who is black, has spoken out against many traditional forms of affirmative action, drawing protests from the civil rights community.
"All this just doesn't matter," said Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, who voted against Judge Thomas' nomination to the appeals court and, previously, to the chairmanship of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which he held under President Reagan.
"I'm more concerned about what kind of a justice he'll be than whether he smoked marijuana while in college," Mr. Metzenbaum said.