¥Gov. Gary Johnson says Just Legalize It.
¥Time to put pot culture out of our misery , a rant
¥What really happens if you're busted
In an era when many of the ideological differences between Democrats and Republicans have evaporated; when aspiring politicians have all the individuality of Cabbage Patch dolls; when political leaders recite interchangeable soundbites on the War on Terrorism and the War on Drugs, Gary Johnson stands out like a polar bear at a tea party.
A former ski bum who jackhammered his way from contractor to multimillionaire, Johnson, 49, has broken more than a few saucers. As the Republican governor of New Mexico, Johnson has proved an unyielding fiscal conservative, vetoing no fewer than 550 bills in his eight years in office--more than all his predecessors combined.
Johnson is also a fitness fanatic: An accomplished triathlete, he once ran 25 miles through the White Sands Missile Range in Army boots and fatigues, carrying a 35-pound pack, to commemorate the Bataan Death March.
But nothing set him apart from the rest of the species Politicus americanus as much as a statement he made in 1999, a few months into his second term, when he became the highest elected official in the U.S. ever to support the legalization of marijuana.
Allied with his admission that he didn't just experiment with marijuana as a youth but smoked it on a regular basis, Johnson set off a wave of controversy. He became a pariah among New Mexico Republicans. His approval rating dropped 11 points. His public safety secretary resigned.
None of that changed his mind, however. Despite his willingness to buck the conventional wisdom, Johnson remains popular with voters, even though he is barred from seeking a third term.
This week, Johnson comes to Portland to speak about drug reform (see box, next page). We caught up with him to find out more about his ideas.
Willamette Week: You want a more rational drug policy. What does that mean, exactly?
Gary Johnson: Well, what I'm advocating is the legalization of marijuana. And then "harm-reduction" strategies on all these other drugs. When I talk about harm reduction, I'm saying, basically, that we recognize drugs as a health problem, and not as a criminal-justice problem. I maintain that 90 percent of the drug problem in this country today is prohibition-related, not use-related--that is not to discount the problems with use. But we ought to be concentrating on use from an educational standpoint.
What prompted you to raise this issue?
There has been the acknowledgment on my part since 1993, when I started to run for office, that the War on Drugs is a failure. I have always believed that we could not continue to arrest and incarcerate all the drug users in this country. When I stepped out on this issue, my intention was to have a dialogue, and let's include legalization as a potential alternative. Half of what we spend on law enforcement, half of what we spend on the courts, half of what we spend on the prisons is drug-related. And again, from my standpoint, I don't think there's a bigger issue facing the world today that has some practical solutions.
The elimination of drug prohibition would have a positive impact on our country. We can't continue to arrest 1.6 million people a year.
What progress have you made on these issues in New Mexico during your tenure?
I'm not going to claim that the steps that we made are either significant or insignificant, but they are small steps. We've had some harm-reduction strategies: the sale of syringes out of pharmacies, needle exchange, the ability of law enforcement to administer anti-opiates at overdose scenes, giving judges discretion in sentencing, asset-forfeiture reform. We have allowed convicted drug felons to work at the tracks in New Mexico. These are small steps, but they're positive ones.
Why haven't you taken bigger steps?
Well, the problem in my opinion lies with elected officials. I think a lot of those in office are responsible for the whole getting-tougher, where we're at now, and there's a reluctance to admit that you're wrong. This is just something you can't stick your neck out on. People running for office are just reluctant to take on this issue.
You advocate legalizing marijuana. What about heroin, cocaine and other drugs?
What I'm saying is, let's look at some harm-reduction strategies. In Zurich, Switzerland, if you are a heroin addict, you can get free heroin. You have to go to a doctor and get a prescription. You go to a clinic, the heroin is free, the needles are clean. No more hepatitis C. No more HIV. No more having to rob and steal to get the heroin. Well, I talked to the chief of police from Zurich, who was in Albuquerque a couple of years ago, and he said, "Hey, when they came out with this, everybody in law enforcement knew that death, disease and crime were going to skyrocket." Then he said, "I've come to tell you that death, disease and crime in Zurich have plummeted."
Heroin-maintenance program is not an end-all, but it's an approach that recognizes it as a health problem and not a criminal-justice problem. And there are other ramifications. These heroin addicts have to register, so all of a sudden you know who they are. In many cases, several of them become functioning members where they hadn't before; in many cases, nothing improves other than they get their free heroin and they don't have to rob and steal to get it.
But won't legalization encourage more people to smoke pot and try other drugs?
Well, the ultimate hypocrisy, I mean the real killer in our society is tobacco--I mean, there are more health-related negatives regarding tobacco than any other substance. I'm somebody who hasn't had a drink in 15 years. It's the best decision I ever made in my entire life--would I like to do away with alcohol in society, would it make society better? I can tell you it would. I don't smoke cigarettes; I've dedicated my life to fitness. Would we be better off without tobacco? Absolutely. Can we criminalize those substances? I don't think so. We tried that with Prohibition. It just doesn't work.
For starters, we shouldn't be looking at use as the benchmark. Look at Holland, where effectively drugs have been decriminalized; Holland has 60 percent of the drug use the United States has. I'm talking about marijuana and hard drugs, kids and adults. So if you look at that, it would not suggest that use would go up. But if you read in tomorrow's paper that "Alcohol Use Up in Oregon by 3 Percent Over the Last Year," you'd think, "Who cares?" Because you understand that alcohol use is cyclical; it's up and it's down. But what you do care about is DWI--is DWI up or down, is violence associated with alcohol up or down? Domestic violence, property crime--these are the things you really care about when it comes to alcohol. You don't really care about use; what you care about is abuse.
Why can't we apply that same criteria to marijuana? And how much more can use go up from 80 million Americans? Or from what is estimated at more than half the high-school seniors? I find it difficult to believe that use will go up!
You mentioned you haven't had a drink in 15 years. When was the last time you smoked a joint?
You know, effectively I quit smoking marijuana in 1977. Not that I didn't do it a few times after then, but up until then I had been a fairly regular smoker of marijuana for about five years.
Hmmm...how would you define "fairly regular"?
Well, I've been asked that question before, so I've quantified it at two and a half times a week, which means one week goes by and you don't smoke it, two weeks go by and you don't smoke it, then the third week comes and you're smoking every day. So what I have is practical knowledge that marijuana impairment does not compare to alcohol impairment. And again, you're talking to someone who doesn't do any of these substances; I don't do sugar, I don't do Coca-Cola. I've come to recognize all these substances as handicaps. But anyone who smokes pot knows that alcohol is the real culprit in today's society, not marijuana.
So why did you quit?
I had a trigger event. I was an aspiring ski racer, and I realized one day on the slopes that marijuana slowed me down, that it was a handicap. And not that I didn't understand that before, but it really came home to me that day and hit me squarely in the eyes that, gee, if I think I'm doing so well when in fact it is a handicap, then it probably carries over into other aspects of my life and I probably don't need it.
What is your biggest handicap now?
I have plenty of handicaps. None of us are smart enough, and I'm in that category. I don't read enough. I don't watch TV. I don't know Spanish! I've got all sorts of handicaps.
Will you ever smoke marijuana again?
I don't plan to. I can't say it's completely out of the question. I know I'll never have another drink in my life. But if I were to smoke marijuana, given the stand that I've taken, it would detract from the message that I am trying to send. So I really can't see myself doing that, either.
When was the last time you ate a cookie, or drank a Coke?
A cookie or a Coke? I can absolutely tell you that it has been six months.
How many miles did you run today?
I ran nine miles and biked 45 miles.
OK, you haven't eaten a cookie in six months and you ran nine miles today. You're obviously an individual with tremendous willpower. Maybe a nation of Gary Johnsons could handle some of the proposals you're talking about, but do you think America is really ready for this?
Again, you get back to the fundamental question. People are already doing these substances. That is the reality; it's always going to be the reality. Fundamentally, do you belong in jail for smoking pot? The government now has two alternatives for smoking pot: One is, you should go to jail; the other is, you should go to rehabilitation. I reject both.
For the most part, people who smoke pot choose when and where to smoke pot, and they--I'm going to get in trouble for this--they do it responsibly. They don't do any harm to anyone else, arguably, besides themselves. Most pot smokers don't belong in rehabilitation, and they certainly don't belong in jail.
"Rethinking the War on Drugs"
Gary E. Johnson, Governor of New Mexico
Noon Thursday, May 23
Benson Hotel, Mayfair Ballroom, 309 SW Broadway
Cascade Policy Institute, 242-0900