New Mexico Governor's Pipe Is Half Full

New Mexico's legislature closed its 2002 session passing only three of the governor's six policy priorities for reforming the drug war in his state.

Gov. Gary Johnson said last week that he was pleased the legislature passed measures aimed at preventing abuse of asset forfeiture laws, allowing offenders to receive Medicaid assistance after release from prison, and giving judges more discretion in sentencing nonviolent habitual users.

But he was sorry the legislature opposed legalizing medical marijuana, decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana and sending nonviolent first- and second-time offenders to treatment centers instead of prison.

"We got half of what we were after," he said during a news conference following the session. "Although some didn't pass, some did and overall, that was one of the bright spots, I thought."

Johnson was particularly disconcerted that the medical marijuana bill failed, especially after it had been rescued from committee attempts to kill it.

"I thought that anyone in pain, anyone suffering from cancer, if they found relief from smoking marijuana, I really thought that as a legislator, how could you not vote yes for that?" the governor asked.

Some lawmakers said they voted against the drug legislation because they feared New Mexico would become a mecca for drug users that would, in turn, increase crime.

"I truly believe that had these bills passed, our state would have been ruined," said Sen. Ramsay Gorham, R-Albuquerque. "Our families would have started decaying. The children would not have had good role models."

Gorham said part of her opposition to the bills came from a lack of statistical evidence that changes in drug policy would cut down illegal use or reduce prison costs.

"We looked carefully at what each bill would have done legally," she said. "Our goal was turn over every stone."

But some lawmakers blame Johnson for the failure of drug reforms, citing a crush of other legislation and the failure to seek public approval for the reforms. Johnson is in his last year of office and never brought up the drug war in his political campaign four years ago.

"The governor never gave the drug reform agenda a chance," said Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque. "He allowed so many bills to be considered. He kept (drug reform policy) out of public debate and expected lawmakers to work with him. These are huge issues that need cultivation at the grass roots level."

Outside observers say Johnson — and his drug laws — were victims of both politics and lack of education.

Darren White, who served as the secretary of the Department of Public Safety under Johnson, pointed to the constant head butting between the Republican governor and the Democrat-controlled Legislature over everything from drugs to the state budget.

"When you have two sides as polarized as much as they have been, I don't think it's any surprise," said White.

"I'd tell him to tell legislators that he's out of the drug policy business. That way, I think, he would have a better chance of getting some bills through," said former Gov. Tony Anaya, who has worked with the Lindesmith Center in New York to change New Mexico's drug laws.

"I see these past few years as the education of Gary Johnson. The governor became involved in the debate beyond just thinking about the conceptual part of it. He was forced to begin looking at the nuts and bolts of the issue," Anaya added.

With more attention focused on treatment, sentencing and prison population, Johnson has turned the debate into more than just a discussion on the war on drugs, said Anaya.

"In respect to Governor Johnson, if he hadn't brought up this issue, it wouldn't have been discussed the way it has been," Anaya said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.