By Bobby Black
Former New Mexico governor turned marijuana advocate Gary Johnson speaks to HIGH TIMES.
It’s safe to say that the vast majority of politicians don’t support the legalization of marijuana; it’s an even safer bet that most Republicans eyeing their party’s nomination in 2012 wouldn’t be caught dead at a pot rally, let alone at the offices of HIGH TIMES. Then again, Gary Johnson is not most Republicans.
Sure, when it comes to fiscal policy, he falls right in line with fellow libertarian-minded officials like Ron Paul and his teabagger son Rand – he likes his markets free, his budgets balanced and his government small. But compared to the rest of the GOP, Johnson is far more rational when it comes to social issues: He believes in evolution (and that Obama was born in the USA); he also supports gay unions, stem-cell research, and a strong separation of church and state. But perhaps his most notable departure from the party line is his outspoken support for marijuana legalization.
“Right now, amongst the universe of politicians, there are zero percent that support legalizing marijuana,” Gov. Johnson says. “But behind closed doors, in my opinion, fully one-quarter of all politicians support it. If you go to them wanting to have a debate and a discussion – ‘Gee, what we’re doing isn’t exactly right, and we should be doing things differently’ – that number goes to well over a third. And yet no one is standing up regarding this issue. Given that 46 percent of Americans support the legalization of marijuana, can you think of any other area in our lives where there is such a total disconnect between public opinion and politicians?”
Gov. Johnson is seeking to bridge that disconnect. Rather than distance himself from this “third rail” issue, he’s boldly embraced it – actively courting the stoner vote by speaking out at numerous pot rallies and conventions (including our recent Medical Cannabis Cup in Denver) and on popular shows such as The Colbert Report. He even chose to announce his candidacy at a press conference on April 21 – a move no doubt designed to capitalize on the momentum of our high holiday one day before without being directly tied to it. So why, as a conservative, is he championing a cause often thought to be the purview only of hippies and the seriously ill? It’s the economy, stupid.
“When it comes to the impact of taxing marijuana, I’ve heard numbers that could be anywhere between seven and 11 billion dollars [in revenue] nationwide. Certainly, that’s going to be positive – but more positive are all the resources that would get redirected. When you look at the costs associated with the Drug War … it’s going to make a huge difference when half of what we spend on law enforcement, the courts and prisons is no longer spent.”
Gov. Johnson sees the War on Drugs as not only a colossal waste of time, money and resources, but as an affront to our personal liberty as well.
“It would have a huge positive impact on all our lives if law enforcement went out and enforced [laws against] real crime as opposed to catching individuals selling small amounts of drugs, which is half of what they do every single day. It’s going to make a huge difference when we no longer have 2.3 million people behind bars for arguably committing victimless, nonviolent crime. When 54 percent of the population says to 46 percent of the population, ‘You belong behind bars for your actions,’ that’s a bad law. And that’s what we’ve got right now – a really bad law.”
While Gov. Johnson doesn’t advocate legalizing harder drugs, he does recognize the need for a policy shift across the board.
“I’m opposed to the Drug War A through Z,” he states. “If we legalize marijuana, as a country we take a giant step toward rational drug policy, which I would describe as harm-reduction strategies when it comes to all the other drugs: reducing death, disease, crime, corruption – the things we really care about. In a nutshell, looking at the drug problem as a health issue rather than a criminal-justice issue.”
Considering the similarity of their agendas, Gov. Johnson finds it surprising that his Tea Party counterparts don’t also support legalization.
“That political position, in my opinion, is a bit hypocritical,” he notes. “The reality of embracing what this country has always been about, which is liberty and freedom, means accepting the personal responsibility that goes along with that – and that doesn’t exclude someone who might want to recreationally use marijuana.” Though he no longer partakes in any recreational intoxicants himself, he draws a sharp distinction between them.
“I’ve smoked marijuana and I’ve drank. I don’t do either today, but in my experience, there’s a big difference between alcohol and marijuana: Marijuana’s a lot safer. I’ve always maintained that by legalizing marijuana, you’d have less overall substance abuse, because people would perhaps find marijuana [preferable] as an alternative to alcohol.”
So what would marijuana policy look like under President Gary Johnson’s administration? Like alcohol, pot would be taxed, regulated and legal only for adults who use it responsibly.
“It will never be legal to smoke pot, become impaired and get behind the wheel of a car or do harm to others – and it’s never going to be legal for kids to smoke pot or buy pot,” he says. But pot’s illegality, he argues, only makes it more destructive to America’s youth.
“Our kids are really suffering as a result of prohibition laws, not benefiting. Under what system is [marijuana] more readily available to kids, the one that exists today – where the person that sells marijuana also sells harder drugs – or one where kids have to produce an ID to buy it in a controlled environment, similar to alcohol? And don’t you, as a family, want to deal with the fact that your kids are smoking marijuana without having the government involved and criminalizing the behavior of you or your kids?”
Of course, these changes require overcoming generations of government misinformation and intimidation – no easy task. “This is an issue of education,” Gov. Johnson explains. “We’re talking 70 years now of existing drug dogma. I think that Prop. 19 really helped by making marijuana legalization a topic of discussion at millions of dinner tables every night across America. This is an issue that does really well under the light of day – the more light you shine on it, the more you get people talking about it, the better the issue does.”
So when will more politicians start taking it seriously?
“I guess when [public approval] approaches 50 percent plus, and when you’ve got a state vote to actually legalize,” Gov. Johnson predicts. “In the case of alcohol prohibition, it’s my understanding that New York said to the federal government, ‘We’re no longer going to enforce alcohol laws in New York. If you want to enforce them, come on in and enforce them, but we’re not’ – and that was the first domino that fell that got us a repeal of alcohol prohibition. I think marijuana is going to follow that same course: You’re going to have a state vote to legalize it, and the government is going to have the option to come in and enforce it, but I don’t think they will – we just don’t have the resources, and what’s the point?”
Perhaps the most important question to ask ourselves here is: Does a pro-pot candidate really have a shot at the White House?
“Over the last 13 months, I’ve been to 32 states, probably addressed 400 groups,” says Gov. Johnson. “So rather than speaking theoretically, I’m actually burning some shoe leather to see whether or not that might be the case. Right now, with the economic climate as it is, with the political awareness where it is, I think there’s a real palpability amongst Americans to legalize marijuana. I think we’re a couple of years from a tipping point of making this happen.”