During a recent speech in Washington, New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson sounded a bit like the guidance counselor on South Park. "Drugs are bad," he told his audience at the Cato Institute. "Don't do drugs."
A 46-year-old triathlete who abstains from alcohol, tobacco, Coca-Cola, and candy bars as well as illegal intoxicants, Johnson declared drugs "a handicap" so many times that I lost count. Yet the conservative Republican posed a question that few politicians have the courage to ask: Are drugs so bad that people who possess them should be arrested and locked up?
Johnson's answer, as heartfelt as any prohibitionist's determination to achieve a "drug-free America," is an unequivocal no. A few weeks before the Cato speech, that stand prompted a scolding letter from federal drug czar Barry McCaffrey, who informed Johnson that "your publicly stated positions are inconsistent with my national drug control policy."
When Johnson failed to fall in line, the frustrated former general let loose a barrage of invective, calling the governor's position "preposterous," "astonishing," "embarrassing,"and "pro- drug." He said Johnson is "a terrible model" sending "a terrible message." In short, "he should be ashamed."
McCaffrey's over-the-top reaction suggests how desperate drug warriors are to maintain the illusion of monolithic support for their never-ending crusade. They cannot tolerate even a peep of dissent from someone in a position of authority.
But neither McCaffrey's vituperation nor the anger of Johnson's fellow Republicans in New Mexico has stopped the governor from speaking out against an injustice that seems to have troubled him for a long time. In his speech, he remembered being dismayed as a teenager at the idea of locking up drug users.
When he first ran for governor in 1994, Johnson readily admitted that he had smoked marijuana in college. He recalled the response from reporters: "Oh, so you experimented with drugs?" He corrected them: "No, I smoked marijuana. This is something that I did…along with a lot of other people…We enjoyed what we were doing."
Johnson wanted to make it clear that his experience with drugs did not involve test tubes and Bunsen burners. Though he now advocates a drug-free lifestyle, he still does not think drug users should be treated like criminals.
"Did we belong in jail?" Johnson asked, noting that a felony record would have prevented him from running for governor. "Does anybody want to press a button and retroactively punish the 80 million Americans who have used drugs?"
In 1997, Johnson noted, state and local officials arrested 1.6 million people for drug offenses, and about 400,000 drug offenders are behind bars right now. "I don't think we can continue to lock America up [for] bad choices," he said. "This has got to end."
In terms of honesty and consistency on the subject of drugs, Johnson compares favorably with George W. Bush, who as governor of Texas signed legislation authorizing incarceration for first-time cocaine possession but refuses to say whether he ever committed that offense himself. Or Al Gore, who admits that he used to smoke pot yet supports a war on drugs that results in 700,000 marijuana arrests a year.
As a speaker, Johnson is not as polished as Bush or as wooden as Gore. He is earnest enough to offer his own "Seven Principles of Good Government," but he still has a sense of humor. Perhaps, he suggested, the government should take over the business of manufacturing and distributing drugs. "If that doesn't decrease drug use," he said, "I don't know what will."
A successful entrepreneur who started out as a handyman, Johnson is neither a blue blood nor a professional politician. The governorship is the first office he ever ran for, and it looks like it will be the last, despite an attempt to draft him as a presidential candidate for the Libertarian Party.
Aside from that overture, Johnson's criticism of the war on drugs has not exactly opened up doors for him. He described his political prospects this way: "I'm in the ground, and the dirt is being thrown on top of me."
Johnson's ambitions for after he leaves office in 2002 include climbing Mount Everest. His record as an athlete–he plans to compete in the Iron Man Triathlon this year for the third time–suggests that he has the physical stamina he'll need for that project. His straight talk on drugs shows that he certainly has the guts.