Pubdate: Fri, 22 Oct 1999
Source: New Haven Register (CT)
Copyright: 1999, New Haven Register
Author: Associated Press


CARRIZOZO, N.M. - The cyclist focused hard on the deserted road ahead as he
pumped his way up a steep slope amid the scrub-covered mountains of southern
New Mexico. The sun was just coming up, and he was on the last leg of a
five-day, 430-mile journey.

But Gary Johnson had barely broken a sweat.

The Republican governor and triathlete has never attempted an uphill battle
he thought he couldn't win. That goes for his latest cause: trying to
convince anyone who will listen that drugs should be legalized.

Johnson, 46, is a former drug user who now gets high on nothing more than
his own endorphins. He has shocked politicians in both parties by becoming
the nation's leading proponent of the legalization of such drugs as
marijuana, cocaine and heroin.

Johnson doesn't drink or smoke, and has a bet with colleagues about who can
survive longer without cake, cookies or colas. He insists his athleticism
and position on drugs are not contradictory, saying legalization would curb
drug-related health problems by controlling dosages, frequency and

"Drugs are a bad choice. They're a handicap," he says. "But does that
warrant putting that person in jail or putting a felony on their record for
the rest of their lives?"

Johnson says drugs should be regulated and taxed much like cigarettes and
liquor. He envisions a scenario in which marijuana would be legalized first,
followed by more dangerous drugs such as heroin and cocaine, which would be
available by prescription, only for addicts.

Johnson admits he doesn't have a specific, detailed plan, but says he wants
to start a debate on the issue.

In his home state, which last year led the nation in drug-induced deaths,
Johnson's views on drug legalization have been labeled crazy and
irresponsible by both Democrats and Republicans.

His own public safety secretary insists Johnson's crusade has crushed the
morale of law officers fighting the war on drugs. U.S. drug czar Barry
McCaffrey has ridiculed the governor as "Puff Daddy Johnson" and rushed to
New Mexico earlier this month to denounce Johnson's position.

Where others see dissension, Johnson sees progress.

"If this were a wacko idea," he says, "then it wouldn't be going anywhere,
there wouldn't be any attention given to it at all."

A millionaire who made his fortune in the construction business, Johnson
ousted New Mexico's longest-serving governor in 1994 to capture his first
elective office.

The next year he vetoed a record 200 bills. He later became the first New
Mexico governor to be held in contempt of court when he failed to halt a
welfare program he implemented without legislative approval. He has also
become one of the country's most vocal champions of school vouchers.

State Democratic Chairwoman Diane Denish says Johnson's leadership style
mirrors his approach to fitness: He is competitive, unrelenting and prefers
to work alone.

"He's an athlete who has not been part of teams, and that's very much how he
operates in government -- as a single competitor," Denish says.

For Johnson, the idea that criminalizing drug use is wrong began taking
shape in high school, when he tried marijuana despite the warnings of
teachers and police.

"What we learned was what everybody learned -- that, 'hey, you smoke
marijuana and you are going to go crazy,'" he says. "Then, there are my
friends that actually began smoking pot, and it wasn't the bogeyman."

While campaigning for governor, Johnson admitted smoking pot and using
cocaine in college. He says he quit when, while skiing stoned, he noticed
his time was slower than when he was clean.

These days Johnson says he doesn't touch drugs. He rises at 4:30 a.m. to
run, swim or lift weights, and plans to participate in his third Ironman
triathlon this Saturday in Hawaii. The competition combines running,
swimming and biking.

"The sad thing about it is he's a great role model for kids, and he's
getting ridiculed all the time," says his wife, Dee. The couple have two
children: one in high school, the other in college.

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