Reprint: Our October 2000 Interview with Gov. Gary Johnson

Gary Johnson, former two-term governor of New Mexico, has been in the news extensively this week as the Libertarian Party's presidential candidate. We are therefore reprinting this interview which ran in the October 13, 2000 issue of our newsletter, when Johnson was still governor. (The newsletter was called "The Week Online with DRCNet back then, hence "WOL" appearing by the questions instead of "Chronicle."
Gary Johnson

New Mexico Republican Governor Gary Johnson, 47, entered the national spotlight little more than a year ago when he stepped forward to dissent from the bipartisan consensus favoring the war on drugs. In doing so, he has become the highest elected official in the land to call for the outright legalization of marijuana and dramatic harm reduction measures to address hard drug abuse. What began with an Albuquerque reporter overhearing a restaurant conversation on drug policy and Johnson's non-denial of his views soon escalated to state and then national media attention, including an appearance on CBS News' 60 Minutes.

It also led to harsh attacks, from New Mexico political and law enforcement figures, one of whom called him "an idiot" in print, all the way up the drug czar himself, who called Johnson "ignorant and irresponsible" for his stands.

Undeterred by the attacks or by a drop in his popularity at home, Johnson has continued as an effective advocate for reform. He has attended dozens of meetings throughout New Mexico to explain his views, and has been active nationally as well. He broached the topic at the Western Governors' Association meeting in Hawaii this summer and recently spoke at both Shadow Conventions, to loud applause.

Johnson, who aside from drug policy is well within the Republican mainstream, entered politics from the private sector, where he operated a construction company. He was elected governor in 1994 and reelected in 1998, becoming the first governor in New Mexico history to win two consecutive four-year terms. His term expires in January 2002.

Johnson has said that he had tried marijuana and cocaine in the past, but now uses no drugs at all, including alcohol. He is a tri-athlete and a family man.

WOL: Governor, please tell us if this is an accurate summary of your positions. You support the legalization of marijuana. As you've said, we should control it, tax it, regulate it. At one time -- about a year ago -- you made statements indicating you supported the legalization of drugs such as heroin as well, but now you advocate "harm reduction" measures for drugs such as heroin. Most of all, you want to open the discussion. And, you have made it clear that you are not endorsing drug use, that drugs are a "bad choice." Is that a fair summary?

Gov. Johnson: In general, yes. I said we should be legalizing heroin. Heroin is the only drug where a model for controlled use existed, and I was actually referring to the Swiss model. I said we should be looking at a harm reduction strategy and moving from a criminal to a medical model. Indeed, let's not forget that alcohol was once prohibited, and I'm not endorsing alcohol. Quit drinking now! It's an incredible handicap.

WOL: What has caused you to reconsider your position on legalizing heroin?

Gov. Johnson: I haven't really changed it, just sharpened it. I believe in heroin maintenance and other harm reduction measures. But when you talk about legalizing heroin, it takes the focus away from the issues. People freak out, their brain banks power off. To talk in terms of legalizing heroin is not useful.

WOL: You've been up and down in the popularity polls because of your positions on drug policy, but now your numbers have started to come around again. Does your experience lead you to believe that talking about legalization or even talking about talking about decriminalization is still a lethal "third rail" for an American politician?

Gov. Johnson: I am the example, I don't know anyone else talking about this, and I went into this with my eyes open. As for popularity polls, well, those politicians that have high approval ratings, are they necessarily doing anything or do they have the ratings because they're not taking stands? As for the initial dip in my numbers, I saw that coming. Does that detract from my believing this is an issue that should be talked about? No. It needs to be talked about, pot needs to be legalized, and we need to reduce the harm.

I've made it a point to talk to everyone I can in New Mexico, everywhere I can. Interest has been tremendous, there have been too many requests for me to be able to honor them all, and the reaction has been exciting. After a meeting in Farmington, a judge comes up to me and tells me "that's the best argument I've ever heard." And I know this guy; he wouldn't say it if he didn't mean it. Another time, a lady comes up to me and confesses that she and her friends were aghast and embarrassed at my stand and having to defend me. She told me I had no defense, and she said that when she and her friends came to see me, they almost walked out when I started talking about drugs because they were so uneasy with the subject. But after the talk, she told me I had them all thinking about the issue like they never dreamed they would. Not that they necessarily agree with me, but now they are saying it is something that should be talked about.

I went to a conservative town, Roswell, and got a standing ovation after my speech on drug legalization. I know they didn't necessarily agree with me, but there is respect now, people are willing to hear about the issue. Unlike anyplace in the country, people in New Mexico have talked about it. Over the past year, a lot of people have come to understand the issue. Now they're going starting to say, "Wait a minute..." In another two years, it will become possible to see real progress.

WOL: You have said that drug policy reform is fundamentally a federal issue. But is there no room for states to act, for example, to modify their criminal codes or sentencing structures or shift the emphasis from law enforcement to treatment and prevention, to lessen the harms of the war on drugs? Is there nothing you can do in New Mexico?

Gov. Johnson: I've come to recognize that there are a lot of things that can be done at the state level. Here in New Mexico, I set up a drug advisory council with judges, medical people, law enforcement people, and treatment people. They will make their recommendations in December. I've purposefully stayed away from the panel, but I believe there will be a number of specific recommendations that we can address through the legislative process.

I intend to make a real difference on these issues. I'm talking about sentencing reforms, mandatory minimums, treatment over incarceration, medical marijuana, and the legalization of marijuana -- if we can pass the legislation. But I think the advisory council's recommendations may even go beyond that.

I've also sent the panel up to the Western Governors' Association conference in Nebraska. I told them not to be wallflowers. They weren't. There is interest among the governors.

WOL: You've endorsed Gov. Bush for the presidency this year. Can you comment on his and Al Gore's general lack of interest in changing or discussing drug policy? And, given that you have said you will seek no further elective office, why not take a stand on principle on the drug issue and endorse either Ralph Nader or the Libertarians' Harry Browne, both of whom make drug policy reform major parts of their campaign?

Gov. Johnson: Believing that either Bush or Gore will win, I have to ask myself where do I have the most impact on this issue? I can have more of an impact working with Gov. Bush; after all, outside of drug policy we are pretty much in line. Do I not advance the issue further given that I would get a sympathetic ear at a Bush White House?

As for the campaigns, well, they don't want to talk about it.

WOL: What is the most striking or shocking thing you've learned as a result of your foray into drug policy?

Gov. Johnson: Some of the people I have come up against in this, well, if they were king, I would have been strung up or shot or hanged. This virulent reaction has been the most shocking thing. I now have a sense of what the Salem witch hunts were about. And I'm the witch.

WOL: Once you leave office, what will you be doing and do you plan to continue your efforts to put drug policy reform on the political agenda?

Gov. Johnson: I will continue to work on the issue, although at this point I'm not sure just how. My horizon right now is the end of my term two years down the road.

The first thing I'm going to do, though, is climb Mt. Everest.

WOL: Seriously?

Gov. Johnson: Oh, yes. Before I was governor, I started and owned a construction company. I sold it a year ago, so I'm in the enviable position of not having to work. We have to ask ourselves what are our goals in life, and I say it is to be happy. For happiness, the bottom line is freedom. That's what it is about for me: life, liberty, the pursuit of freedom. I've charted my own course, I'll be a free individual.

(This article was prepared by's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also pays the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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