General Consternation

New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson's "astonishing" position on drugs is upsetting all the right people.


During an October speech in Washington, New Mexico Gov. 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 insisted on posing a question that few politicians are brave enough 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 views "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–which included a trip to Albuquerque arranged especially so he could castigate Johnson on his home turf–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 (who reportedly have screamed and cursed at him in private) has stopped the governor from speaking out against an injustice that seems to have troubled him for a long time.

When he first ran for governor in 1994, Johnson readily admitted that he had smoked marijuana and snorted cocaine as a college student. In his Cato speech, he recalled correcting reporters who described this as "experimenting with drugs." He and his friends were not experimenting, he said. They were having fun.

Johnson wants to make it clear that his experience with drugs did not involve test tubes and Bunsen burners. Nevertheless, he says, such "experimentation" does refute certain hypotheses about the consequences of drug use. "You're brought up learning that drugs make you crazy," he told Students for a Sensible Drug Policy during his visit to Washington. "Then you do marijuana for the first time, and it's not so bad. It's kind of cool. That's when kids find out it's been a lie."

Though Johnson 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 his Cato audience, 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 (and whose teenaged son was caught smoking it a few years ago) yet supports a war on drugs that results in 700,000 marijuana arrests a year.

Johnson, a successful entrepreneur who turned a part-time job as a handyman into one of New Mexico's biggest construction businesses, 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 candor and courage won him a standing ovation at the Cato Institute. But the crowd, which consisted largely of drug policy activists and others sympathetic to the cause, was not completely uncritical. Some had hoped for a more dynamic speaker. Others wished he'd bone up a bit on drug policy: Murmurs could be heard, for example, when he seemed to concede that some people die of marijuana overdoses (there is no such case on record) and when he confessed that he wasn't familiar with New York's Rockefeller drug laws, which set the pattern for the harsh mandatory minimum sentences that have helped fill U.S. prisons with drug offenders.

More fundamentally, Johnson's insistence that "drugs are a handicap" comes across as needlessly puritanical. Few people, after all, are prepared to follow his example by eschewing all psychoactive substances. Declining to do so is not necessarily "a bad choice," as Johnson has repeatedly asserted. For those of us who don't compete in triathlons, it may be a perfectly reasonable choice. Johnson was on firmer ground when he told the student group he addressed that "the majority of people who use drugs use them responsibly." Morally and practically, the important distinction is between use and abuse, not between use and abstinence.

On the other hand, the nuances may not matter very much. It's not as if Johnson is facing off against subtle thinkers. In an outraged Washington Times op-ed piece, McCaffrey accused him and the Cato Institute of creating "a smokescreen" to conceal their real goal. They may call for the legalization of drugs, he wrote, but "it is clear the real agenda is the legalization of drugs." Aha!

McCaffrey contrasted "people like Mr. Johnson," who "would put more drugs into the hands of our children," with "Americans"–i.e., the decent, right-thinking people for whom the drug czar speaks. "We don't want the driver of the 18-wheeler next to our minivan high on marijuana," he wrote, implying that "people like Mr. Johnson" relish that prospect. "We want our children to grow up with bright futures, not drug addictions," he added, suggesting that "people like Mr. Johnson" hope their kids will be crackheads and junkies.

Against this sort of mindless demagoguery, the significance of Johnson's stand lies not in the details but in his breaking of a taboo. He is the highest-ranking elected official to call for the repeal of drug prohibition, and his boldness may inspire others. It certainly has upset McCaffrey, who told CBS News that Johnson "has done more damage in the last few months than has been done in the last several years by drug legalization forces." We can only hope that McCaffrey is right for a change.