New Mexico Republican Governor Gary Johnson returned to promoting his crusade for a new drug policy in the last two weeks. In a well-attended speech in Houston sponsored by the Drug Policy Forum of Texas (DPFT), the governor brought his message to a mixed audience of reform advocates, mainstream politicians, and criminal justice professionals. Meanwhile, back in New Mexico, Governor Johnson has announced the formation of a 40-member advisory panel to make recommendations for reforms in that state's drug laws.
Before the June 26 lunchtime speech in Houston, Johnson had an hour-long meeting with the editorial board of the powerful Houston Chronicle. According to DPFT Executive Director Al Robison, who attended the meeting, Johnson was "absolutely magnificent."
Robison wrote that "He did such a good job with the editorial board that they ran out of questions for him even before the hour was up... I have the strongest gut feeling that the Governor had a very positive impact on the way they're now thinking about the drug problem, and maybe it'll be reflected in their editorials in the weeks and months to come. We'll see."
In the speech itself, Johnson shocked some audience members with his blunt embrace of decriminalizing drug use, beginning with the legalization of marijuana.
"I think it is really good politics to say that the war on drugs has failed miserably and that we need to be looking at alternatives," he said, as quoted in the Houston Chronicle.
Johnson contrasted American drug policies with more enlightened models elsewhere. He described a Swiss heroin maintenance clinic where addicts get a prescription and inject the drug.
"The heroin (cost) is significantly less. There's not the need to commit the crime to be able to pay for the heroin. The heroin is clean. The needle is clean. The product is a given product. There is no overdose. There is no hepatitis B and no AIDS."
"Tell me that this is not a better situation from what we presently have?" he said.
Some audience members appeared open to second thoughts even if they were not necessarily swayed by the governor's arguments. Chuck Rosenthal, the Republican Harris County (Houston) district attorney candidate, told the Chronicle he opposes legalizing drugs.
"I'm not in favor of it, but I'm always glad to listen to other options," he said. "I'm not clear on how it shapes up from a medical standpoint."
And, according to Robison, the chairman of the Harris County Republican Party paid strict attention to the governor's speech, especially Johnson's point that being against the war on drugs is actually good politics.
Robison added that the speech was also attended by deans from the University of Texas Health Sciences Center, the Democratic and Republican candidates for Harris Country District Attorney, three Republican Harris County judges, the Rotary Clubs district governor, and other politically powerful people.
Since then, Governor Johnson has remained active on the drug reform front. He will appear at the Shadow Conventions scheduled to coincide with the Democratic and Republican national conventions this summer. (For the Albuquerque Journal's recent coverage of Johnson and the Shadow Conventions, visit http://www.abqjournal.com/news/70549news07-04-00.htm. Also visit http://www.drcnet.org/wol/143.html#shadowconventions and http://www.shadowconventions.com for further background.)
In the meantime, he has also, after a year of taking to the national soapbox on drug policy, turned his sights to his home state. Johnson has created a new Drug Policy Advisory Group to study and recommend drug strategies he can enact or present before the state legislature at its next session in January.
Johnson wants the panel to develop harm reduction policies for New Mexico, with an emphasis on hard drugs such as heroin. The panel's recommendations could include calls for needle exchanges, treatment and prevention programs, government drug-dispensing clinics and methadone programs.
The group, led by former state District Court Judge Woody Smith, met for the first time last week. The Albuquerque Tribune quoted Smith as saying that "every member" of the group agreed on one thing: the war on drugs is not working.
Johnson told the Tribune that his bottom-line question for the advisory group is: "Can we point to less harm done by illegal drugs in our society?"
Albuquerque Mayor Jim Baca, who sits on the panel, told the Tribune, "I think it's good to get into a logical debate about it. I really don't know what we'll come up with. All I know is, things don't work now and something different has to be done."
The Albuquerque Journal, meanwhile, has reported that the group's expenses are being financed by The Lindesmith Center.