In 1999, a year after winning a second and final term as Republican governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson became the most prominent politician in the United States to call for legalizing marijuana. He also said straightforwardly that he had used pot himself in the past. As he explained in a reason interview the following year, the admission was a reaction to Bill Clinton's infamous statement about never inhaling. "Come on!" Johnson said. "I needed to be honest about this, so it was something that I volunteered."
In 2010 Johnson is hoping to gain notoriety for a different, though related, reason. At a time of deep and convulsive popular discontent with the economy and the politicians attempting to manage it, Johnson has launched a profile-raising 501(c)4 nonprofit organization called the Our America Initiative, pushing limited-government solutions to economic, environmental, social, and international issues. If in the process he happens to tap into the growing Tea Party sentiment and palpable Republican hunger for new leadership, well, Johnson won't complain. As Politico reported in December 2009, the former governor "is doing little to knock down the idea that he may be looking toward a 2012 presidential run." While ending the drug war remains a central concern (Johnson was a featured speaker at the Marijuana Policy Project's annual dinner in January), the tanned triathlete is hoping to deliver the kind of broad-based critique of big government that proved such an unlikely success in 2008 for the less telegenic Ron Paul.
Johnson, 57, exudes a distinctive Mountain West mix of adventurousness and pragmatism. He's an avid skier, cyclist, and rock climber who has scaled Mount Everest (losing a chunk of toe from frostbite in the process). He founded a construction company that peaked at 1,000 employees—largely, he claims, on the strength of showing up on time and hitting project deadlines. He has an A-to-Z list of unkind things to say about his New Mexico successor, Bill Richardson; tells amusing stories about his long-ago drug use (Johnson has been alcohol- and drug-free for well over two decades); and is one of the few politicians who brags about how compassionately he fires people. If it's hard to imagine him heading up the Republican Party in 2012, it's certainly no crazier than a septuagenarian Austrian-economics aficionado turning out the youth vote in 2008 or a Republican nobody winning Ted Kennedy's old seat in 2010.
reason Editor in Chief Matt Welch and reason.tv Editor Nick Gillespie sat down with Johnson in January. A version of this interview can be seen at reason.tv.
reason: What were your big accomplishments as governor of New Mexico?
Gary Johnson: I think I really did a good job when it came to controlling the growth of state government. I vetoed 750 bills while I was governor of New Mexico. I vetoed thousands of line items as governor of New Mexico, almost more than the other 49 governors in the country combined.
I cut the annual rate of growth in spending in half, from 10 percent to 5 percent. I would have liked to have cut actual spending, but that wasn't going to happen.
New Mexico is 2-to-1 Democrat. I got elected as a Republican. I think I did a great job of showing people that government doesn't have to spend money to make you happy, that government really needs to be providing a level playing field.
reason: What was one of the areas that you cut spending or got government out of business altogether?
Johnson: Really, it was across the board. Over an eight-year period in New Mexico while I was governor, the number of state employees, excluding education, went from 13,000 to 12,000, so there was a 1,000-person reduction in state government over an eight-year period. That had never happened before. Since I've left office, my successor has taken that number from 12,000 to 16,500. No area of state government has been improved, and yet there have been that many more employees added at a cost of, back of my napkin, a couple hundred million bucks, factoring in benefits.
reason: What's your message on economic policy?
Johnson: Well, stop the spending. Deficits are out of control, and that's going to have a major impact on all our lives. Strong dollar rather than weak dollar.
reason: Would you have voted against the TARP bailout?
reason: And the stimulus package?
Johnson: I think that we should legalize marijuana. It's never going to be legal to smoke pot, become impaired, get behind the wheel of a car. It's never going to be legal for kids to smoke pot. But let's tax it, let's regulate it, let's control it.
reason: So make it like alcohol.
Johnson: Make it like alcohol. Look, I haven't had a drink in 22 years. Best decision I ever made in my life. Would this country be better off if no one drank? Yes, it would be, but we tried that; it doesn't work. I don't want to tell anybody that they can't have as many drinks as they want every single night of the week as long as they don't get behind the wheel of a car.
With regard to all the other drugs, we need a shift in the way we look at drug use. Let's look at drug use as a health problem first, not as a criminal justice problem. Half of what we spend on law enforcement, half of what we spend on the courts, half of what we spend on the prisons is drug-related. By bringing about a rational drug policy, we'd be freeing up a lot of resources for real crime. Drug disputes would get played out with courts rather than with guns. So it would make this country a much better place overnight.
reason: You were one of the first politicians to stake out this position in the United States. Describe a bit how that played out in your political career. Are you still in a lonely position? Is this the third line of cocaine on the plate of American politics?
Johnson: It is going to change. I believe that the issue is at a tipping point nationally. We've had a vote during the last general election in Massachusetts to decriminalize marijuana by a vote of 65 to 35 percent. Wherever medical marijuana has been on the ballot, it's passed overwhelmingly. A Gallup poll just a couple months ago suggests that 44 percent of the population of this country believes that marijuana should be legal. It's never been that high. People armed with just a little bit of knowledge on this topic move to a more rational position, rather than "lock 'em up."
reason: It's been a pretty lonely position within Republican politics, certainly. So have been your stances against the Iraq war and the Afghanistan occupation. Talk a little bit about that and how you fit into the Republican conversation.
Johnson: Well, I'm putting this to the test. I believe in a strong national defense. But it's my belief that neither Iraq nor Afghanistan poses a threat to national security and we shouldn't be involved in either area. Before we went into Iraq, I made the statement that we had the surveillance capability to see if Iraq would have rolled out any weapons of mass destruction, that we could have gone in and surgically dealt with that situation militarily, but if we got involved in Iraq that we would be engaged in a civil war to which there would be no end. And I'm afraid that that's come to pass.
I think Afghanistan is the same kind of situation. Osama bin Laden said, "I hope America gets involved militarily in Afghanistan, that we can bankrupt them the same way that we bankrupted the Soviets." And that's exactly what's happening. I'm afraid in Afghanistan that more men and women are going to lose their lives and we will have spent a whole lot more money in a situation that ultimately we're not going to make a difference in.
reason: So have you talked with Republicans about that?
Johnson: Yes, yes, yes.
reason: Because there is a group of Republicans who were consistently against the wars, but it doesn't seem to be that popular in the party, even though a majority of Americans think these wars are misguided.
Johnson: Well, I'm putting this to the test right now with Our America Initiative, getting out, being able to speak on these issues, and finding out if there is more broad-based support than what politically would seem to be the case.
reason: You have a tab on your site called "The Environment."
Johnson: Well, we all care about the environment. When it comes to clean air and clean water, I don't think there's any compromise. I have accepted for the sake of argument Bjorn Lomborg's argument that global warming is happening, that it's caused by humans. But now what should we do? What we're currently doing is way overblown. The effects of global warming are way overblown. And the amount of money that we're looking to spend on the problem is really, really misdirected. Look at the cap-and-trade legislation—that now appears to be going nowhere, thank goodness. A 25 percent tax is really wrongheaded. I think that would just kick the economy's rear end.
reason: So what's your idea for producing the results you want to see?
Johnson: We want to see lower carbon emissions. I think that's probably a good idea. So looking forward, technologically, this is going to happen. The government certainly could provide incentive for technologies moving forward. But the government shouldn't be involved in actual development of those technologies.
reason: What about taxes?
Johnson: My own personal interaction with taxes is, you raise taxes and legislators spend those taxes. I know there's talk about taxes to reduce the deficit. Well, I don't believe it. It doesn't happen. Legislators spend every bit of money that they have. And when it comes to our federal government, they're spending money that we don't have. The debt is $12 trillion, due to double in the next 10 years, $55 trillion in unfunded federal mandated liability.
reason: So do you keep taxes where they are, and then you just cut spending?
Johnson: You cut spending. You cut spending.
reason: What would you cut first?
Johnson: My experience was never about targeting any area of government to reduce. It was looking at every single line item in the state budget and making a determination of whether or not it was really making a difference. And again, I want to say I was wildly successful in looking at that and, from a common-sense standpoint, reducing it wherever possible.
reason: In New Mexico, you privatized or competitively contracted for a lot of services.
Johnson: New Mexico had over 600 prisoners housed out of state. We were under a federal consent decree regarding our prisons and how they should be run. I ended up, as a result of a legislature that was not wanting to address this issue, privatizing over half of the state's prisons. Comparing apples to apples, the private side produced the same goods and services for two-thirds the price. And they're still in place.
I always say that if we could rationally approach and reform our drug laws, it'll be a lot easier to shut down the private prisons than the public prisons. There's more interest in keeping prisons alive and functioning and full by the public side, not the private side.
reason: The current political moment seems pretty fluid, dynamic, interesting. What do you think about the Tea Party movement?
Johnson: I think it's interesting. I think if I weren't doing OurAmericaInitiative.com that I'd just be one of the masses in the Tea Party movement with the signs "Stop the Spending" and "No Taxes."
reason: Who did you support in 2008?
Johnson: Ron Paul.
reason: What did you like about Ron Paul's message?
Johnson: Well, limited government, and a history of really saying no to spending. Really having a history of articulating what government should and shouldn't do. I was really heartened by his support. Statistically, I think it ended up to be about 9 percent of the Republican vote, but it was a strong 9 percent.
reason: Why are you a Republican?
Johnson: Early on it was about spending for me. It was about making the first real money that I made in my life and recognizing that I was going to have to pay more than 50 percent of what I earned in state and federal taxes. I really thought Republicans were first and foremost about spending and reducing spending.
reason: Do you feel that way after the first decade of the 21st century?
Johnson: Well, I couldn't be more upset that we ran up record deficits with Republicans having held control of Congress and the White House. And yet those deficits are looking paltry compared with what's happening today. That's part of my anger and reason for speaking out: believing that what I have to say on the issues isn't being articulated anywhere.
reason: Who are some of your political heroes?
Johnson: I thought I had a whole bunch of them until I got involved in the process, and then I found out that there just aren't principled individuals involved in politics. Not that I didn't make a lot of really good political friends or find a lot of individuals to be very principled in what it is they've done. But for the most part, I've been disillusioned on political heroes. This notion of actually doing what you say you'd do, that's the rare breed.
reason: Let's talk a little bit about your personal history. You had dreams of becoming a professional skier.
reason: What happened to those dreams?
Johnson: I just wasn't as fast in reality on skis as I was in my mind on skis. But I gave it a shot.
reason: You ended up starting an enormously successful construction company.
Johnson: Well, I started out in 1974 as one-person handyman and over a 20-year period grew that business to employ over 1,000 people. I sold it in 1999. I found that being governor of New Mexico was not a plus for business. At the time we had about 500 employees, and when we sold the business nobody lost their job, and the business has gone on to new heights, as I hoped it would. I think it ended up well for everyone.
reason: Does your business experience give you any particular insight into politics?
Johnson: I think so. The insight for me is that government needs to provide a level economic playing field. I would rue the fact that I would sign legislation in New Mexico giving a huge tax incentive to the film industry. I'm going to sign this piece of legislation because it will grow the film industry, but do you all recognize that we could be doing this for every business in New Mexico by doing the same tax cuts for everybody? I would have preferred to have done that.
reason: You climbed Mount Everest. What year was that?
Johnson: 2003. Left office, and actually got to the top of Mount Everest.
reason: So it's all been downhill since then?
Johnson: (Laughs) It was a great experience. It was a fabulous experience.
reason: What drove you to do that?
Johnson: You know, I've got a goal to climb the highest mountain on each continent in the world. I've had the good fortune of doing four of them, and barring some sort of catastrophic injury, I will make it to the top of all these summits. There's no rush to do it, but I just thought that would be a great way to see the planet.
Bonus Reason.tv video: Click below to watch Gary Johnson discuss his vision for a truly free America.