Pubdate: Wed, 29 Sep 1999
Source: Albuquerque Journal (NM)
Copyright: 1999 Albuquerque Journal
Contact:  P.O. Drawer J, Albuquerque, N.M. 87103
Author: Barry Massey, The Associated Press


SANTA FE - Gov. Gary Johnson, in adopting a bolder position on a politically
touchy subject, voiced support Wednesday for legalization of some drugs such
as marijuana and heroin.

Johnson's statements were the strongest and most direct he has made in favor
of drug legalization in the past three months since he started calling for a
state and national debate on alternatives to the so-called war on drugs.

"I am advocating that I think legalization is a viable alternative to what
we are now doing," Johnson said at a news conference. The Republican
governor said he had no plans to propose legislation to make drugs legal in
New Mexico, but said he personally supported legalization as a national policy.

His comments came as Johnson prepared to potentially step again in the
national spotlight on the drug issue by appearing at a conference on the
subject next week in Washington, D.C. The conference is sponsored by the
libertarian Cato Institute, which advocates drug legalization.

Johnson, who has acknowledged using marijuana and cocaine in the 1970s, is
the highest ranking elected official to promote drug legalization. Minnesota
Gov. Jesse Ventura suggested during his campaign that the state should
consider legalizing marijuana, but hasn't pushed for it since.

Johnson's statements also stirred new criticism from some Republicans, who
have objected that Johnson is going against the party's national platform
that backs strong criminal penalties for drug-related crimes.

"Maybe the next thing he'll do is be bold enough to smoke a joint on TV,"
Sen. Billy McKibben, R-Hobbs, said of Johnson. The governor said his views
have evolved as he's done more research on drug policies.

In the past, Johnson has said legalization should be considered as part of a
national debate on changing drug laws. But the governor previously stopped
short of personally advocating legalization and instead focused mostly on
the decriminalization of drugs. That would treat drug possession much like a
traffic violation and make it punishable by a small fine. Johnson had said
he favored eliminating jail time for those who smoke marijuana, for example.

But now, Johnson said, he favored drug legalization as the best approach for
changing national policies that rely on prohibition and criminal sanctions
as a way to deal with addiction and abuse of drugs.

Decriminalization of some drugs, Johnson said, would not eliminate the black
market economy of trafficking and growing of drugs. Legalization would allow
governments to regulate, tax and control drugs like alcohol and tobacco.

Johnson said he considered it possible to legalize drugs and not have an
increase in drug use. And the governor reiterated that he was not condoning
the use of drugs by children, calling them a "bad choice."

In addition, Johnson made it clear that legalization of drugs would require
new laws such as prohibiting drug use by children, much as alcohol sales are
prohibited to anyone under age 21.

Johnson expressed support for legalizing marijuana and heroin. He said he
didn't know enough about the potential long-term medical effects of other
illegal drugs, including cocaine, to currently advocate their legalization.
He said many of the health problems related to heroin abuse stem from use of
dirty needles rather than the drug itself.

Despite his support for drug legalization, Johnson acknowledged that it was
politically unrealistic.

But he suggested that legalizing marijuana was the first step.

"Realistically speaking, if you can start with marijuana, I would suggest
that's huge. And realistically speaking, that may be 15 years off. But it
would be better to have it 15 years off than 80 years off. And talking about
it now, in my opinion, is going to get that closer," Johnson said.

Last week, Johnson came under criticism from President Clinton's drug policy
director. A spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy
described the New Mexico governor as the "poster child for the drug
legalization movement."

McKibben said Johnson "has come out of the closet" with his latest comments
in favor of drug legalization.

"That clarifies it now so that all of the Johnson supporters and the dope
addicts will know for sure that the governor is advocating that -- not just
a discussion, but the actual legalization. And let him carry that burden on
out to the general public," said McKibben.

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