Governor Gary Johnson received a standing ovation from more than 300 New Mexicans as he strode to the microphone to reiterate his stance on the need to end the drug war and legalize drugs. The forum, hosted by the New Mexico Drug Policy Foundation, also featured California Superior Court Judge James Gray and Debra Small of the Lindesmith Center in New York.
Johnson, who has captured the attention of both the national and New Mexico media ever since coming out for drug legalization several months ago, cited massive corruption, access to drugs by children, crime, violence and the strengthening of multi-national criminal organizations as proof that the drug war is "a massive failure."
Judge Gray, also a Republican, spoke eloquently about the cases that have come before him over his eighteen-year career on the bench. He, like Johnson, told of his strong disdain for the use of dangerous drugs, but went on to describe both the human and economic costs of a failed prohibitionist policy.
The forum followed an all-day conference that featured drug policy reformers from New Mexico and beyond. Speakers included Keith Stroup of NORML, several members of the Drug Policy Forum of Texas, Kevin Zeese of Common Sense for Drug Policy, Adam J. Smith of DRCNet and others.
On the morning of the forum (11/16) Darren White, Johnson's secretary of public safety, tendered his resignation from a post that he had held for five years, citing strong disagreement with the governor's stance on drugs. Last month, White told reporters that Johnson's call for legalization was hurting the morale of the state's law enforcement officers.
"My cabinet members are certainly free to disagree with me," Johnson told reporters. "There was certainly no pressure on Darren to resign. This is entirely his decision."
The following morning, the New Mexico media reported that John Dendahl, state chair of the Republican Party, had acknowledged privately going on record in support of the governor's assertion that the drug war is unwinnable and must be reevaluated. In 1997, Dendahl quietly authored an article titled "Whither the War on Drugs?," for a private conservative group of which he is a member. Dendahl wrote in that paper, "I have come to agree with those who advocate decriminalization of drug use. However, there are some caveats with that agreement." Still, Dendahl defended White, saying he has been taking hits from all sides, and that "The governor got ahead of his disciples" (see http://www.abqjournal.com/opinion/1call11-18-99.htm).
Steve Bunch, President of the New Mexico Drug Policy Foundation, which has now sponsored two governor's forums on drug policy, told The Week Online that the response across the state has been very positive.
"Most of the politicians in this state have been slow to embrace the governor's position, and in truth, the governor has been far out in front of even many reform-minded people in calling for outright legalization. The people of New Mexico, however, seem to be very willing to discuss the issue, and there is a lot of support for the idea of ending the drug war as we know it."
But media coverage and forums will only go so far, says Bunch, unless that support is organized into a force for change.
"When the governor first came out on this issue, he said that he wanted to de-stigmatize the debate and to make it safe for people who are holding office or running for office to speak the truth. Our job at the New Mexico Drug Policy Foundation is to educate and organize citizens in order to make that a reality."
IF YOU ARE IN NEW MEXICO OR HAVE FRIENDS OR FAMILY IN THE STATE: Sign-up at http://www.newmexicodrugpolicy.org or call the New Mexico Drug Policy Foundation at (505) 344-1932.