November 8, 1999
NEW MEXICO MAVERICK
JOHN J. MILLER
“In running for office during my first term, I offered up the fact that I smoked marijuana. And the media was very quick to say, ‘Oh, so you experimented with marijuana,'” recalls Gov. Gary Johnson, Republican of New Mexico. “No, I smoked marijuana. This is something that I did. I did it along with a lot of other people. But me and my buddies, you know . . . we enjoyed what we were doing.”
The scene is a drug-policy conference at the Cato Institute, and the auditorium is packed. The audience is think-tank bohemian: bearded drug-policy wonks, open-collared legalization advocates, and a few plain old potheads. One reporter from High Times magazine has dyed his hair green and asks about CIA drug trafficking. For just about everybody in the room, Johnson is a hero. He receives standing ovations coming and going. And his line about the pleasures of weed meets with raucous approval.
Talk like that started turning heads over the summer when Johnson let it be known that he had decided to make drug legalization a major theme of his second term. On October 7, federal drug czar Barry McCaffrey made a special trip to Albuquerque to condemn him. “This is goofy thinking,” he said, also calling the governor “an embarrassment.” In joining the war on the war on drugs, however, Johnson is hardly alone: Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke, former secretary of state George Shultz, and Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura are also critics. Yet only Johnson appears eager to make legalization part of his legacy. He is probably the most high-profile drug legalizer to hold office today.
Then again, Johnson would earn cheers from libertarians no matter what his views on drugs. He has tried repeatedly to cut taxes, and has had modest success, despite a state legislature run by old-school Democrats. In the six years before his first election, the state government grew by about 10 percent annually. Johnson has cut that rate by more than half, and trimmed about 1,200 jobs from the Santa Fe payroll. He has vetoed 550 bills, which he boasts is more than all other sitting governors combined. That number includes two state budgets last spring, which Johnson nixed because they didn’t include school vouchers. He threatened to shut down the government, but eventually gave up in the face of unified Democratic opposition and doubts among rural Republicans.
“Veto Johnson,” as some in New Mexico have dubbed him, is a citizen-politician; he was not involved in public life at any level before seeking the GOP nomination in 1994. Outside of Albuquerque business circles, nobody had heard of him. He self-financed his primary campaign, and went on to beat an incumbent Democrat. He has said over and over that he won’t seek another political office. And he certainly won’t get a job in a George W. Bush administration: In July, he became the only governor to endorse Steve Forbes for president. Activists in the Libertarian party, in search of their own Ventura-like miracle, have talked about drafting Johnson for a White House run. “I’m very flattered,” he smiles, “but I’m a Republican.”
Johnson, 46, was born in snowy North Dakota, but he’s all New Mexico now, right down to his turquoise wedding ring. With his narrow face, close-cropped hair, and lean build, he looks like Steve Largent, the wide-receiver-turned-congressman from Oklahoma. Johnson too is an athlete, with skin that has turned orange from long hours outdoors. He is a hang-gliding, ski-jumping, sky-diving rock climber who has reached the summit of Mt. McKinley. He marked the anniversary of the Bataan Death March with a 25-mile desert run in combat boots while wearing a 35-pound backpack. He has competed in a 100-mile, 30-hour race that makes the traditional marathon look like a cakewalk. And on October 23, he will participate in Hawaii’s invitation-only Ironman Triathlon Championship-for the third time. Johnson expects to complete the race-2.4 miles of swimming, 26.2 miles (a marathon) of running, and 112 miles of biking-in less than eleven hours. He plans to climb Mt. Everest on leaving office at the end of 2002.
Johnson’s flamboyance sometimes spills over into his politics, as when he said that wife-beaters should be “soaked in honey, staked on a red ant hill in Texas, and shown on national TV.” He once suggested planting microchips in the brains of criminals. As for abortion, he’s one of those politicians who say they’re personally against it but wouldn’t be comfortable outlawing it-yet local pro-lifers love him. “He backs every piece of legislation we’re for,” says Dauneen Dolce, of the Right to Life Committee of New Mexico. That includes “parental consent,” “informed consent,” and bans on assisted suicide, partial-birth abortion, and Medicaid-funded abortion. Johnson didn’t win the group’s endorsement in 1994, but got it four years later.
A serious man as well as a free spirit, Johnson speaks with the earnestness of an infomercial actor. His speeches sound like pleas propelled by force of logic, as if he genuinely doesn’t understand how reasonable people could disagree with him if they just spent enough time thinking about the subject. His remarks can turn amusingly Socratic, with Johnson asking himself skeptical questions and then providing sharp answers.
This pattern of thought clearly led Johnson to what he calls his “outrageous hypothesis”: the notion that the drug war not only has failed, but has actually made matters worse. Drug interdiction is a costly diversion, he says, clotting the legal system with minor criminals and yanking resources away from more important kinds of law enforcement. “The goal of our entire drug policy, I think, should be to reduce drug use among kids . . . and adults, for that matter,” he said recently on ABC’s Good Morning America. He envisions a regime in which the government taxes, controls, and regulates narcotics, as it does alcohol. Sale to minors would be prohibited, and businesses would be free to test their workers (which Johnson has done for years at his construction company, which now employs more than 1,000 people). He knows this is no panacea. “Under a legalized scenario, there’s going to be a whole new set of problems,” he said at Cato. “But I suggest to you that those new problems are going to be about half the negative consequences of what we’ve got today.”
Johnson speaks powerfully as a former user-not an “experimenter.” He was a prolific dope smoker and an occasional cocaine snorter in the 1970s. “Don’t do drugs,” he says again and again. “I’m not pro-drug.” Yet that’s a hard message to sell when he also criticizes the Partnership for a Drug-Free America’s “This is your brain on drugs” campaign: “I really do envision advertising that actually tells the truth, which says, ‘You know what? Drugs are kind of nice and that’s the lure of drugs. The reality is that you continue to do drugs and that they are a real handicap.'” While that may not qualify as a pro-drug statement, technically, it is not quite anti-drug, either. And this is what he had to say about cocaine to the Dallas Morning News in September: “You know why people do it. It’s wonderful. Whoaaa! Whewwww!”
Just about every elected Republican in New Mexico opposes Johnson on the issue. “His stand on drugs is absolutely despicable,” says state representative Ron Godbey. Adds John Dendahl, the state GOP chairman, “This is a distraction. We’re taking our eye off the ball of school choice and tax reform.” Yet some Republicans are privately sympathetic, and Johnson is convinced he can shift public opinion. A September poll had only 37 percent of the public agreeing with his position on drugs, but his approval rating was up five points.
When Johnson first sought office, he came out of nowhere. “Not one person asked me to run for governor-not one person,” he likes to say, a surefire applause line in speeches. If his drug-legalization effort lights up the kind of grassroots support Johnson thinks is out there, plenty of people will ask him to challenge Democratic U.S. senator Jeff Bingaman next year. And if it doesn’t, his political career may be over-which doesn’t seem to bother him. “This is my last political office,” he declares. And, as with everything else he says, he appears to mean it. Strongly.