Pubdate: Thu, 14 Oct 1999
Source: San Jose Mercury News (CA)
Copyright: 1999 Mercury Center
Author: Joanne Jacobs



POLITICIANS speak out boldly for peace, prosperity and subsidies for Iowa
and New Hampshire residents. They pledge to cut government waste, preserve
Social Security, end crime, heal the sick, educate the children and, of
course, get tough on drugs.

When real political leadership is needed, they wimp out. Usually.

New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson is providing an example of political courage
by saying out loud what many have been saying in private: The war on drugs
is a high-priced failure, the conservative Republican says. It's time to
talk about legalizing drugs.

The drug warriors want to avoid a debate on drug policy, so they're
accusing Johnson of being a drug pusher. The governor ``should be ashamed
for talking to a bunch of college students and telling them that marijuana
use is great and heroin use is great,'' drug czar Barry McCaffrey said on a
visit to Albuquerque.

The college students in question, members of Students for Sensible Drug
Policy, responded that Johnson said no such thing in his Washington, D.C.
speech. Instead, he repeated his standard advice: ``Don't do drugs. Drugs
are a handicap. Don't do drugs, don't do alcohol, don't do tobacco.''

A 46-year-old triathlete, Johnson follows that advice himself. But he's
honest about his drug use in his college days, when he smoked marijuana
regularly and tried cocaine. ``It's a bad choice. Me and my buddies smoked
- -- did we belong in jail? Man, I don't think so.''

McCaffrey also told Rotarians in Albuquerque that the state's
schoolchildren call their governor ``Puff Daddy Johnson.''

If that's true, New Mexico schoolchildren must be remarkably well-versed on
current events -- and the White House drug office must have agents in
Southwest schoolyards.

Johnson is serving his second term as governor, and he can't run for
re-election. He has nothing to lose by tackling ``the biggest
head-in-the-sand issue'' in politics, as he said in response to McCaffrey.

The federal drug budget has quintupled in 10 years, reaching $18 billion.
Two-thirds of the money goes to law enforcement, 22 percent to treatment
and 12 percent to anti-drug education.

State and local spending raises the bill to about $40 billion.

Overall, drug use has declined since 1979, a peak year, as the drug czar
claims. But the down cycle ended in the early '90s. Adolescent drug use is
up since 1992, according to federal surveys.

Legalizing drugs would lower the violent crime rate by destroying the black
market, Johnson said. The billions of dollars saved could fund treatment
programs instead of jails and prisons.

``Control it, regulate it, tax it,'' he said in a speech to the Cato
Institute in Washington, a libertarian think tank.

Johnson suggested that drug sales to minors could be banned, and that more
dangerous drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, might be available under a
doctor's prescription and be administered in a hospital or clinic.

Legalization would create new problems, the governor conceded. ``But I
suggest to you they will be about half the negative consequences we have
under today's scenario, which is basically to arrest and lock up our

Treatment is the most effective way, by far, to limit drug abuse and crime.
Yet access is limited, and waiting lists are long.

Intervening in drug-exporting countries -- the helicopter-and-herbicide
strategy -- is the least effective way, by far, to limit drug use.

McCaffrey advocates pouring another billion dollars into Colombia's civil
war. Hapless government troops and brutal right-wing militias are fighting
left-wing guerrillas, who are entrenched in the jungles and mountains and
enriched by cocaine taxes. Drug warriors want to send more helicopters,
more weapons, more U.S. military advisers and more aid. What are they smoking?

A few courageous politicians, notably Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, have
called for treating drug users instead of jailing them.

In the November issue of Playboy, Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura advocates
decriminalizing drugs. ``The prohibition of drugs causes crime. You don't
have to legalize it, just decriminalize it. Regulate it.''

But Ventura is a stunt act, a man who aspires to rebirth as a brassiere.
Johnson is a serious man raising serious issues that are worthy of debate.

Instead of asking whether George W. Bush ever used cocaine, let's ask him
why he's signed laws lengthening prison terms for ``young and
irresponsible'' Texans. Ask Al Gore how he justifies grossly
disproportionate mandatory minimum sentences that have filled federal
prisons with low-level drug offenders, who serve longer sentences than
rapists. Ask Bill Bradley what civil rights Americans should abdicate to
prevent people from getting high.

Gary Johnson says the emperor has no clothes. Is he wrong?

- ---
MAP posted-by: Keith Brilhart