I’ve been in New Mexico less than 10 minutes when I realize that no ordinary politician rules the Land of Enchantment. After the young woman working the rental car counter discovers I need wheels to visit her very own governor, she starts talking excitedly and positively about his efforts to pass a school choice bill. One of her co-workers, a Democratic activist, tries to straighten her out, and the conversation soon grows to include other employees, all of whom are surprisingly well-informed due to the governor’s high-profile efforts to pass a statewide voucher program. The Democrat wants to make something else clear about New Mexico’s top pol: She doesn’t appreciate his crusade for drug legalization. Struggling to come up with the worst possible epithet, she finally spits out, "I think he’s a liberal," adding that as one he embarrasses her state. (Such is the New West that even Democrats think of liberals as lower than rattlesnakes.)
New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson is many things—a successful businessman, a two-term governor, an Iron Man triathlete, an aspiring conqueror of Mt. Everest. He’s hardly a liberal, though, unless one uses the term in its original sense of someone who believes that a minimal state is best suited for a free people. Even then, the term doesn’t fully do justice to this energetic man. When pressed on his vision of the state’s role, the 47-year-old Johnson speaks of "ensuring a level playing field and [making certain] that liberties and freedoms are equally available to all." He argues that the government only "needs to ensure that no one is harmful to anyone else."
To be sure, Johnson’s limited-government iconoclasm is more that of an accountant—or a motivational speaker—than that of a philosopher-king. When I first ask him to explain his overarching governing philosophy, he pulls from his wallet a card containing his seven—count ’em—principles of good government, which seem to be culled equally from Ben Franklin and Tony Robbins. Number 1: Become reality driven. Number 2: Always be honest and tell the truth. Number 7: Be willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done.
"My overriding philosophy is the common-sense business approach to state government, period," says Johnson. "Best product, best service, lowest price." On issues ranging from health care for the poor to road construction to drug prohibition to education, he’s convinced you get the best product at the lowest cost when private enterprise injects competition into the process.
This practical approach drives his notorious attitude toward drug prohibition, which Johnson has attacked more forcefully and visibly than any other elected official in America today. He rails against the drug war mostly, though not exclusively, on the grounds that it is inefficient. In general, he is more interested in pragmatic concerns than in defending anything as abstract as inalienable rights. When I bring up prostitution, another consensual crime, he endorses decriminalization, but not on the grounds that people own their bodies or that it’s not the state’s business. Instead he frames his response this way: "Given that prostitution takes place, the question is, ‘Are you safer engaging a prostitute in Nevada or New Mexico?’ I think you are clearly safer engaging one in Nevada in a licensed prostitution establishment."
Such unorthodox positions and the willingness to discuss them openly reflect the unlikely path Johnson traveled before acquiring political power. Most successful pols spend their salad days engaged in political hackery, always making sure their "future political viability" is kept safe from harm. Johnson was on another plan altogether: He spent years smoking dope a couple times a week, competing vigorously in athletics, and then, with his wife of 24 years, building a construction business called Big J Construction. (Though the rental car workers suggested the name referred to his pot smoking days, the governor denies it stems from anything but the first letter of his last name.) In the mid-1990s, Johnson decided it was time to dabble in public service, and he approached the state Republican Party about running for the top statewide office. The Republicans were polite but dismissive, telling him that as an unknown businessman he couldn’t win. He thought otherwise, and he spent $500,000 of his own money to saturate the state with his message of a "common-sense business approach to politics." When the ballots were tallied in 1994, he’d won with 50 percent of the vote in a three-way race. He increased his share of the vote in 1998 by 5 percent, making him the first governor in New Mexico history to be elected to two consecutive four-year terms.
I talked with Johnson in his Santa Fe office for about an hour in mid-August. We spoke of his accomplishments: no tax increases in six years, a major road building program, shifting Medicaid to managed care, constructing two new private prisons, canning 1,200 state employees, and vetoing a record number of bills. Says Johnson, "Every time you pass a law it is a little bite out of freedom." But we spent the majority of time focusing on the two issues that have put the governor in the national spotlight—issues on which he hasn’t achieved anything close to success: drug legalization and school choice.
Reason: Most politicians who admit to using drugs explain it in terms of a redemption narrative: "I did it, I ought not have done it, and no one else should do it." You tell a different story.
Gary Johnson: Like a lot of other people, I’ve smoked marijuana. It is what goes on in this country. At the time [the early 1970s], I thought it was a mind-expanding experience, just like a lot of kids and a lot of adults do. Most peo-ple who smoke marijuana do it in a way similar to having cocktails in the evening.
I don’t smoke marijuana anymore. I don’t drink. Marijuana is a handicap. So is alcohol. Alcohol is a terrible handicap. But in spite of being a handicap, it shouldn’t be criminal. At one point in this country’s history, alcohol was criminal. I think it’s a bad choice. But in no way should you end up in jail for doing that.
You should end up in jail for drinking and driving, drinking and doing crime, drinking and doing harm, just like you should end up in jail if you are going to smoke marijuana and drive, just like if you are going to smoke marijuana and do crime. Those are the lines that we need to draw.
Reason: What prompted you to be so honest about your past drug use?
Johnson: I personally reacted to President Clinton’s statement that he didn’t inhale. Come on! I needed to be honest about this, so it was something that I volunteered.
Reason: You say drugs are a handicap and people shouldn’t do them. But you also say that the most people who use drugs do so responsibly. So are they really a handicap? People could relax at a party by taking a hit off a joint rather than drinking to excess. Why is that a handicap and not a life-enhancing experience?
Johnson: Clearly, it is a handicap. You are slowed down in your reactions. You are not as quick mentally, and you are not as quick physically. [Then again], as stoned as I have ever been on marijuana, the impairment does not compare to being drunk.