New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson and new DEA administrator Asa Hutchinson faced off in a debate over drug policy reform at the University of New Mexico's Continuing Education Center on Monday, September 10. The 90-minute encounter was sponsored by National Public Radio's "Justice Talking" program and is scheduled for broadcast on NPR affiliates and C-Span on October 7.
Johnson appeared the clear favorite of the crowd of around 300 people in the packed auditorium, drawing repeated loud applause despite the moderator's entreaties for silence, while the audience at times booed Hutchinson. Johnson opponent New Mexico Rep. Ron Godbey told the Santa Fe New Mexican the audience was stacked. "If they had brought in a drug-sniffing dog, that would have cleared about half the room," the drug war hardliner quipped.
The 48-year-old libertarian Republican governor took the opportunity to reprise the message that has brought him national attention: The war on drugs is bad social policy, marijuana is less harmful than alcohol, and it is a waste of government resources to spend money to arrest and jail nonviolent marijuana users.
"I believe the war on drugs is an absolute, miserable failure," said Johnson. "Prohibition of drugs is doing more harm than drugs themselves."
Hutchinson wasn't having any of that, and the crowd wasn't having much of Hutchinson, either. "Drug use is harmful," said Hutchinson. "I don't think you discourage use by saying we're not going to make it a criminal offense." When the former Arkansas congressman then tried to jab Johnson for his failure to get marijuana legalized in his own state, the boos came raining down and didn't stop until Johnson took the mike and thanked Hutchinson for coming to New Mexico state to discuss the issue.
Hutchinson surprised Johnson -- and many other observers -- by agreeing with the governor that the Higher Education Act's anti-drug provision, which bars drug offenders from obtaining student loans for specified periods of time, is misguided policy. As Johnson decried what he called a "double standard" where drug offenders but not rapists or robbers are penalized, Hutchinson broke in to say: "Governor, you're correct that that inequity needs to be remedied; there's a lot of unfairness for our college students in that regard. That's something Congress is going to have to look at."
"Gosh," responded Johnson, "kind of got a strike there. That was a good thing. Thank you."
But there were few other areas of agreement. The two Republicans sparred over what marijuana legalization might look like after an audience member asked if Johnson would allow big corporations to sell it. "Yes," Johnson replied, "if marijuana is legalized, the government should tax and regulate it, just as it regulates other sin products."
Hutchinson fired back a zinger: "If you like what the tobacco companies did marketing to our teens and marketing to adults in selling their products," he warned the audience, "wait until they get a hold of marijuana cigarettes."
And they sparred over the utility of trying to stop drugs at the US border. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Hutchinson repeated the drug war mantra that border enforcement will reduce supply and hence demand. Johnson bluntly rejected that claim. "This is pissing in the wind," he said. "We're not having an impact. We're not stemming the flow of illegal drugs into this country."
Hutchinson repeatedly mentioned the recent extradition of Medellin cartel-era drug runner Fabio Ochoa from Colombia as an example of progress in the war on drugs, but Johnson scoffed, arguing that others will take his place. "Cutting his head off just creates ten other heads," he said.
Hutchinson, who has been an advocate of drug courts, argued that the courts should have treatment options for first-time marijuana offenders, but Johnson got some of the heartiest cheers of the night with his response. "The government assumes that everyone who smokes marijuana belongs in rehab," he said. "That's just not true."
In the end, neither Johnson nor Hutchinson was persuaded by his opponent, agreeing to disagree. But Hutchinson, with his apparent retreat on student loans and his attack on racial profiling, as well as his embrace of treatment and education, gave an early indication that he will be a smart and effective advocate for the drug war status quo.