The atmosphere at the Benson Hotel was an intoxicating blend of delirium and wonkery last week, when an eclectic mix of 250 Portlanders jammed the Mayfair Ballroom to listen to New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson denounce the nation's $40 billion anti-drug effort.

"The War on Drugs is an absolute, miserable failure," Johnson declared, to lusty cheers and rebel yells.

Tanned, relaxed and confident, in a blue suit and red tie, Johnson, 49, rejected the frequent criticism that he's endorsing drug use. "Here's my message," he said. "DON'T DO DRUGS! Don't do them." But, he added, we ought to tell young people the truth--that smoking small amounts of marijuana on an occasional basis is unlikely to turn them into killer zombies.

And Johnson--who doesn't smoke, drink or do drugs--also noted that despite 1.6 million drug arrests every year, the problem isn't going away. "Drugs aren't killing us," Johnson said. "Drug prohibition is what's killing us."

Sponsored by libertarian thinktank the Cascade Policy Institute, WW and KXL radio, the $25 luncheon drew attendees who spanned the ideological spectrum--from anti-tax crusader Don McIntire to former Oregon Gov. Neil Goldschmidt to homeless activist Jada Mae Langloss, who careened through flocks of stockbrokers in her wheelchair and trademark floppy hat.

Some attendees, however, were a bit shy about being identified. "We're still a nation engaged in a war on drugs," explained Angela Eckhardt, director of publications at the Cascade Policy Institute. "So only a triathlete second-term Republican governor of a Democratic state, who doesn't touch alcohol, sugar, caffeine or cigarettes, has the standing to speak on this issue."

Following an ovation (Portland Tribune columnist Phil Stanford stood; Goldschmidt didn't), Johnson was besieged by groupies. "Sometimes it almost feels like he's a rock star," confided Johnson's press secretary, Diane Kinderwater.

As the revelers streamed out into the sunlight after the speech, was there a faint whiff of pungent weed? Or was it just the stench of urine? You know, the Johnson Experience is getting more like a rock concert every day.