Pubdate: Thu, 26 Apr 2001
Source: San Jose Mercury News (CA)
Copyright: 2001 San Jose Mercury News
Author: Peter Carlson
Bookmark: (Gov. Gary Johnson)


WASHINGTON -- "We need to legalize marijuana,'I New Mexico Gov. Gary 
Johnson said, and the crowd cheered wildly.

The crowd, it should be noted, was gathered at the annual conference this 
week of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

"I don't recall that we've ever had any high elected officials speak to our 
conferences,'I said NORML Executive Director Keith Stroup.

Johnson wasn't really high, presumably. The conservative Republican 
governor has said he stopped smoking marijuana and snorting cocaine decades 
ago and hasn't had a sip of booze in 13 years. These days, he gets high by 
running marathons and hang gliding.

But now, Johnson, 48, stood smiling in a place most politicians would flee 
in terror: at a lectern in front of a banner reading "Stop Arresting 
Responsible Marijuana Smokers."

"Most users of marijuana are responsible users," he said. "They're not 
doing any harm to anybody. Having smoked it and given it up, I would ask 
you not to smoke pot. But should it be a criminal offense? No."

"The war on drugs," Johnson said, "is a miserable failure." He advocates 
treating marijuana like alcohol and moving toward a "medical model" for 
dealing with stronger drugs and decriminalizing them.

Johnson also dares to speak honestly about his drug use. Unlike politicians 
who admit to having "experimented" with drugs in their youth, Johnson says 
he smoked a ton of pot and it was "kind of fun." That bit of heresy in 1999 
infuriated Barry McCaffrey, then the federal drug czar, who denounced the 
governor as "Puff Daddy Johnson."

Reminded of that incident, Johnson shrugs and smiles. Honesty might work 
better than hysteria in warning kids off drugs, he suggests. In high 
school, he was taught that marijuana would make him crazy. Then, he tried it.

"The thing that struck me was that this whole scare story was a lie," he said.

As a student at the University of New Mexico in the early 1970s, he says, 
he smoked pot maybe two or three times a week. He liked it. He tried 
cocaine a few times, and he liked that a bit too much.

"I understood why people get hooked on that stuff," he said. "I get in 
trouble for saying what I'm about to say, but, well, it was great! It was 
an unbelievable high! I understood why this was not anything I wanted to 
get involved with because -- wow!"

Now, Johnson says, his drug use was foolish.

"It's diminishing returns: The more you use it, the less you get out of 
it," he said.

After college, Johnson started a handyman business with the woman who is 
now his wife. In 20 years, it had grown into a construction company with 
1,000 employees.

Johnson did not reveal his heretical views on the drug war until after he 
was re-elected to his second -- and, by law, final -- term in 1998.

"Half the budget for law enforcement, half the budget for courts, half the 
budget for prison is drug-related. Is there a bigger issue?" he said.

The public response has been positive, Johnson said. Letters, phone calls 
and e-mail messages are running 20-to-1 in his favor, he claims.

"A lot of politicians tell me that they believe in what I'm doing but they 
could never do it themselves," he said.
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