The big takeaway from Gary Johnson's glitch-riddled Internet townhall last night (it took him 15 minutes or so to figure out that he had to unmute questioners) is that the former two-term New Mexico governor will likely make the repeal of marijuana prohibition a pillar of his campaign going forward.
Yes, Johnson has been talking drug law reform since declaring his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination in April 2011, but his banner issue for the last nine months was cutting government spending by 43 percent. He said it in the first televised GOP debate in South Carolina, at the National Press Club, and on conference calls with reporters. Every other issue was a subsidiary (Iraq and Afghanistan, entitlements) or tertiary (drug war, abortion, Mexico) to that one. It wasn't the catchiest plank on his platform, and I frequently got the sense that Johnson touted spending cuts above all else because it was more in keeping with the GOP zeitgeist than, say, reproductive health rights, gay rights, or drug law reform. To be fair, he's still talking about cutting the budget by 43 percent (he said it last night, in fact, to a big government drug reformer). But it's also telling that his first town hall since declaring his LP run was a two-hour live chat with the Marijuana Policy Project's Rob Kampia.
If last night was an indication of things to come, repealing marijuana prohibition will be the secret weapon Johnson uses to pull votes from Romney (or the anti-Romney), and Obama, whose trail of broken promises on medical marijuana has pot proponents threatening to vote for someone else.
Some evidentiary quotes for the thesis that Johnson's going to fly a pot flag from now until November:
"Fifty percent of Americans want marijuana legalized. Being on the ballot on all 50 states, I think marijuana could play a huge role in this election. It's an issue that advances."
"If I'm elected president of the united states, that's the American people shouting they want marijuana legalized."
Last night was also the first time I heard Johnson voluntarily (albeit, obliquely) talk about his own drug use:
"In my own experience, and in every sense, marijuana is safer than alcohol."
(Prior admissions of drug use after his hang-gliding accident were mostly in response to questions from reporters.)
Johnson also spent some time talking specific drug policy with assistance from Kampia:
"I don't want to put any policies or restrictions on growers. Within the context of the 50 state model I think you'll see these kinds of restrictions. I think it should be an open market, and that we will all benefit as a result of that."
"Smoking marijuana and getting behind the wheel of a car is always going to be criminal. What's going to be interesting is applying impairment standards.
"Descheduling marijuana is within the power of the president, because Health and human services is responsible for scheduling."
Again, he's said some of this stuff before, along with promising to pardon federal pot convictions, but I think the bit about impairment standards is new (feel free to correct me in the comments if I'm wrong!), and reflects serious study. Pretty soon, Johnson might be able to get deep in the weeds. Good thing, too, as conventional wisdom holds that the best any third party candidate can hope to do is bring attention to issues the lamestreamers would rather ignore. That means Johnson has to be able to talk specifics, a la Rep. Paul Ryan and entitlement reform, if he's going to move the needle on the drug war. With help from the pot lobbies, some good advertising, and fewer glitchy townhalls, I bet he could put out some high-grade fine print on federal-level drug law reform.
Still more evidence of rebranding: Johnson's stance on gay marriage. He's been a supporter of civil unions for years, but on Dec. 1, 2011, he came out in support of the whole shebang:
"As a believer in individual freedom and keeping government out of personal lives, I simply cannot find a legitimate justification for federal laws, such as the Defense of Marriage Act, which 'define' marriage. That definition should be left to religions and individuals – not government. Government's role when it comes to marriage is one of granting benefits and rights to couples who choose to enter into a marriage 'contract'. As I have examined this issue, consulted with folks on all sides, and viewed it through the lens of individual freedom and equal rights, it has become clear to me that denying those rights and benefits to gay couples is discrimination, plain and simple."
"By any fair measure, equal access to marriage for all Americans is a right — guaranteed by the Constitution. Senator Santorum's claim that legally recognizing gay marriage would be no different than legalizing polygamy, child molestation or bestiality is repugnant and insulting to millions of gay Americans."
"The New York Times reports that while President Obama gives lip service to gay equality, the President will not support gay marriage before the election because of the opposition of African Americans, as reflected in his polling, and the need to assure maximum support from African American voters in November. Instead the President sends out surrogates to imply that he will support gay marriage in a second term."
"I, for one, am tired of seeing candidates for president – including the President himself, play political games with people's lives and happiness. Perhaps it's time for a president who leads based upon principle instead of polls."