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Johnson: Politics is a herd mentality. Politicians don’t really lead. Politicians reflect what they think is consensus opinion.
I see drug policy changing. No question—no ifs, ands, or buts. In the early 1970s, all my friends and I looked around and thought that the law would get changed. Of course, we were smoking marijuana, and we knew that it was illegal, we knew that it was criminal, and we knew that it shouldn’t be criminal. But the law hasn’t been changed.
Reason: Is that partly because drug laws don’t cause much pain to people who can change them? When Al Gore’s son gets caught smoking pot at prep school, he doesn’t get arrested, he doesn’t go to jail, he doesn’t even wind up in the newspaper because his daddy makes a few calls.
Johnson: Class plays a role. But I also know people who smoke pot regularly but don’t think that marijuana should be legalized. They say, "I smoke marijuana, but you know what? I am in control, I can afford this, and I am not going to get caught if I’m careful."
Reason: What do you hope to achieve by putting forward this issue of drug legalization as you have?
Johnson: That we might actually move the needle in the right direction. Any movement at all in the needle is significant, given the depth of the problem. Any movement at all that reduces disease, that reduces overdoses, that reduces property crime, that reduces violent crime is good.
I’m a cost-benefit analysis person: What are we spending and what are we getting? My premise is the war in drugs is a miserable failure. I don’t know of a bigger problem in every single state, or a bigger expense that might actually have alternative solutions. Drugs account for half of law enforcement spending, half of prison spending, half of court spending. What are we getting for it? We are arresting 1.6 million people a year in this country on drug-related charges, and it’s a failure.
Reason: Let’s talk about another controversial program that you have been pushing hard: school vouchers. What is your program, how have you been selling it, and what audience has been the most receptive?
Johnson: What I’ve proposed is that every single K–12 student in the state of New Mexico, all 300,000 of them, get a voucher to attend whatever school they want. The value of the voucher would be about $3,500. That’s my proposal.
I have taken this on the stump, and I will continue to take it on the stump for the next two and a half years. I have talked to any group that will ask me to come talk about vouchers. Same, by the way, when it comes to drugs. So I think New Mexico is getting better and better educated on vouchers. After a couple of years on this issue, the needle has moved. No question about it, the needle has moved! Has it gone far enough? No. All you can do is keep going, going, going.
Reason: Why is it so hard to get vouchers passed?
Johnson: The biggest criticism is that it will take money away from public schools, that it will destroy the public school system. My plan would actually increase the per capita funding for kids who remain in public schools.
We are actually spending about $5,500 dollars per child, and each public school district would get the $2,000 differential for each student who opted out. The example I use is this: Say that every student in Santa Fe were to opt out of public schools, which isn’t possible and is not going to happen. But if it did, Santa Fe public schools would be left with about 40 percent of their budget and no students. Tell me how that takes away from public education.
Reason: How do your opponents deal with that?
Johnson: I don’t think they do. It’s one of those pins in the balloon. Go down the list of the main criticisms: Vouchers only favor the rich. Baloney! People with money live in good neighborhoods that have good schools. Give me a break. Vouchers are for the poor. Vouchers are for those that don’t have money, who live in the worst neighborhoods, go to the worst schools, and can’t get away from them.