Criticizing, Then Legalizing: Governor On Both Sides of Pot Issue

There's no place an anti-drug message would be less popular than at a meeting of the National Organiziation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. But that didn't stop New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson from passing on his message.

"If there is one thing I would like you to take away from my talk today [it] is the following: Don't do drugs," Johnson told the annual conference at the Renaissance Hotel ballroom in Washington, D.C., Thursday.

The 250 or so members in attendance were more enchanted by Johnson's call for legalization, an effort he tried to pass in New Mexico this year but which stalled in the state legislature.

"First and foremost, I think we need to legalize marijuana," Johnson said. "We need to look at harm reduction strategies for all these other drugs ... doing harm to someone else should be criminal and that's what we ought to be focused on."

Federal laws are unlikely to change anytime soon, according to a White House spokesman. As governor of Texas, President Bush began a "Right Choices Campaign" that emphasized teaching kids the dangers of drugs, but the president believes that law enforcement, combined with education and treatment are the best means to fight the drug war, said White Hosue spokesman Jimmy Orr.

"The president said he believes there is a responsibility to confront the problem of illegal drug use because it is destroying neighborhoods," Orr said. The president has yet to name a "czar" to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Johnson said that he proposed a set of 12 laws for his state, including legalization. Six of the bills passed the legislature and were signed into law.

"My promise to New Mexicans was you pass these 12 bills and I guarantee you violent crime will decrease; property crime will decrease; overdose, hepatitis B, HIV will decrease; there will be fewer nonviolent criminals behind bars; we will spend more money on education, more money on treatment in the state of New Mexico," he said.

Johnson said he would try to revive the failed bills and come up with some new ones before his term ends in two years.

The governor has become a mini-celebrity among pot enthusiasts for his libertarian views and opposition to drug laws.  A three-time Ironman triathlete and two-term governor who supports term limits, Johnson is very candid about his own extensive pot use years ago. He said he hasn't had a drink in 13 years, much less a drug, and he repeatedly urged the audience to abstain from tobacco, alcohol and drugs. But, he said, his personal experience with the issue enhances his ability to see both sides.

"I am not unlike 80 million Americans; I have smoked marijuana. It's something that I did. And I understand its use. I understand the impairment from marijuana and I can speak from that experience. I am not unknowledgeable about this, although in retrospect, I think I probably wasted some time, not at the time, but in retrospect."

Johnson said that he continues to assist the Drug Enforcement Administration in its border operations but is not going out of his way to offer support.

"I believe I have an obligation to change the law. Should we turn a blind eye to the law? No, we shouldn't turn a blind eye to the law. So, we're basically maintaining status quo with regard to arrests. There is a heightened awareness among New Mexico law enforcement, but we're not thwarting the DEA's effort," he said.

He also said that the current laws result in the arrests of far too many Americans.

"The Drug Enforcement Administration is saying that there are 14 million users in this country and we're arresting 1.6 million people a year. I reject that we are arresting one out of eight drug users in this country. I reject that and if you do the math, if you go over the last eight or 10 years, we have arrested half the people who have used drugs when you start adding up the millions that have been arrested on drug related crime."