Will GOP Gov's Drug Policy Kill His Presidential Bid?

By ________________________ 06/12/11

Gary Johnson, the two-term governor of New Mexico, has a stellar economic record, high popularity ratings and a maverick stance on the drug war. So why has he been shunned by the press?

Are Gary Johnson's views on drugs and sex too controversial for CNN?

Earlier this month, when five of the nation's leading Republican candidates convened in New Hampshire for the first official debate of the GOP presidential nomination, one man was notably absent—Gary Johnson, the popular former two-term governor of New Mexico, who happened to be the first Republican to announce his run for the 2012 presidency.

Johnson, who single-handedly built a multimillion-dollar construction business before entering politics, stands out among his Republican competitors in both style and substance: He is soft-spoken, deeply informed and almost professorial in his manner, although he can turn on the charisma when he speaks to audiences about his agenda and the issues that most passionately concern him. He avoids finger pointing and talking trash about President Obama in the usual manner of his fellow Republicans. Nor does he take easy shots at some of the more clownish figures in his party who take up so much oxygen, such as Sarah Palin and Donald Trump—both of whom CNN invited to the debate, despite the fact that Palin is likely not to run at all and that Trump rescinded his run after a few weeks of buffoonish behavior.

The iconoclastic Johnson remains a kind of outcast in the Republican Party, refusing to pander to the evangelicals and the Tea Party, who increasingly control the primaries. As the other candidates tailor their positions and policies to the party's extremists, Johnson continues to go his own way, a strategy that requires the courage of his convictions. A fiscal conservative, who led his state through many tax cuts and budget surpluses, he is also a social libertarian with an ardent commitment to civil liberties, including a woman's right to choose abortion and equal rights for gay people—despite the fact that anti-abortion and anti-gay causes are the bedrock of the right wing culture wars. But what most distinguishes Johnson as a true reformer is his sweeping rejection of the war on drugs, which he has famously dubbed "an expensive bust." He also supports the decriminalization of marijuana, the promotion of harm reduction to control other drugs, and the diversion of funds from law enforcement activity against drugs to a public health approach to addiction.

Johnson is, without question, a serious man and a serious candidate, whose views likely resonate with much of mainstream America. But while CNN and the debate’s other co-sponsor, the Manchester Union Leader, made sure to find room for the non-declared Michele Bachmann and the self-imploding Newt Gingrich at the debate, Johnson was singled out for a snub, a situation that has left him understandably and uncharacteristically angry, charging CNN with picking winners and losers rather than allowing the American people to do so. Asked to explain his absence, a CNN spokesperson said that the debate was restricted only to “serious”candidates, including those whose polling shows that 2% of the electorate supports them. However, CNN admits that Johnson was left out of CNN's own polling.

In order to right this wrong, and to give Johnson a chance to make his case, The Fix asked Editor-at-Large Joe Schrank to talk to Johnson in time to run his interview on the day of the debate. Schrank met with Johnson late last week at a Starbucks in midtown Manhattan to discuss modern politics, the legacy of the drug war, and the Governor's prescription for curing America’s addiction ailments.

CNN did not invite you to their debate. Why did they decide to keep you out?

I don’t know. It makes no sense to me! First of all I didn’t crawl out from under a rock to run for President of the United States. I’m a two-term governor of New Mexico. I was very successful at that.  I think, fiscally, I was the most conservative governor in the entire country. I think I’m the guy that everybody writes about as who they want running for president of the United States. I really never questioned that I would have a seat at the table in this process and here it is: I don’t have a seat at the table in this process.

Why is that?

I’ve always been a believer in the system. I can’t say. Is it because of my stand on marijuana? I’m appalled by it, I really am. It’s not right. If you were a two-term governor of New York there’s no question you’d be invited to a debate like this. I was governor of New Mexico. That’s where I live. That’s where I serve. Now most of the issues we faced in New Mexico were identical to the issues that people face in New York. So there’s no reason, none, to exclude me from this.

We at The Fix are very interested in your candidacy for president because many of your positions on drug policy are progressive—especially for a member of the Republican Party. For example, you have said that you want to be a reformer who starts a national discussion about the so-called War on Drugs. That is a courageous, if lonely, position to take.

I’m opposed to the drug war, from A through Z. We currently have 2.3 million people behind bars in this country, which is the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. Many of those prisoners are victims of a public policy that criminalizes behavior that—without condoning the behavior—is a personal choice. As long as people don’t put anyone else in harm’s way, they should be free to make that choice. I’m always pointing out these days that China has four times the population of the U.S. and 1.5 million people behind bars—a Communist authoritarian dictatorship has fewer people in jail than our liberal democracy.

Why is the drug war not part of the national debate—especially with all the talk about the national debt and wasteful government spending?

The amount of money we spend on the drug war—about $70 billion a year, including law enforcement, the courts and the prisons—is simply staggering. From the point of view of any Republican who cares about fiscal responsibility, the drug war ought to have conservatives outraged over the waste of resources. When I was governor of New Mexico, everything was a cost/benefit analysis, and everything was on the table. There were absolutely no sacred cows—meaning issues first, politics last. In that context, the drug war is very consequential given the amount of resources that are going into this that could be redirected toward what I would call real crime—burglary, assault, and other violence.

And yet you remain the only candidate who is addressing these issues. Why don’t we hear more about the drug war?

In my view, in terms of individual liberties and fiscal responsibility, opposition to the drug war is perfectly consistent with true Republican Party values. Yet no other politicians are willing to touch this. I can’t think of any other area of public policy where there’s as big a disconnect between politicians and what the public actually thinks. It’s my understanding that before the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, you could not find a single politician to stand up and support repeal, and yet after repeal you couldn’t find a politician who didn’t support it.

What is your position regarding the legalization of marijuana?

I espouse the legalization of marijuana, believing that if we start by legalizing marijuana, we can take giant steps as a country toward what I would call rational drug policy, which, to put it simply, is looking at alcoholism and addiction as a health issue rather than a criminal justice issue.

Under a President Gary Johnson, what would America’s drug war look like?

The reality is that the regulation of drugs is going to become a states' issue, just as it is with alcohol. States are going to control the manufacturing, distribution, sale and taxation of marijuana, for example. But it’s my understanding that as president, I could deschedule marijuana immediately—and I would do that.

You would deschedule marijuana? It’s currently a schedule 1 narcotic, ahead of cocaine, which is schedule 2.

Marijuana is on par with heroin, and that defies what a hundred million Americans who use it or have used it know. I haven’t had a drink of alcohol in 25 years—it has to do with being the best that I can be. I don’t smoke pot, either, but I have smoked it. And I know the big difference between the two is that marijuana is a whole lot safer than alcohol. Alcohol abuse is a terrible disease, a national scourge, but I don’t begrudge anybody their freedom to drink as much as they want as long as they don’t put somebody else in harm’s way. I think that the same criteria ought to apply to marijuana.

The Republican Party is very fractured at the moment. How does someone like you, with progressive, rational positions on drugs, gain a voice among candidates like Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum and Tim Pawlenty, who seem to be competing to be as far-right-wing as possible?

When I ran for governor of New Mexico, I didn’t get a single narrow-social-conservative vote in the primary. But when it moved on to the general election, I got all their votes and I also got a lot of Independents and Democrats. I hate labels, but I believe that 60 percent of Americans describe themselves as fiscally conservative and socially liberal. Now I would argue that if I had the opportunity to talk to somebody who said that they were socially liberal, what you might find is that they were actually classically liberal across the board. I’m a classic liberal. What that means is that government spends a whole lot of money and doesn’t really make a difference in any of our lives. And a lot of things government does have unintended consequences that are not so good. And I’m talking now about business and banking, about foreign intervention, about drug policy. I probably vetoed more bills than all the other governors in the country combined when I was governor of New Mexico.

You were "Governor Veto."

I was Governor Veto. New Mexico is a state that is two-to-one Democrat, so just saying no to this stuff, man, that doesn’t fly. You got to have reasons. And I talked about those reasons all the time. And I enjoyed the job or I wouldn’t be here either.

You wouldn’t be applying for the next level...

Right. So given the troubles we’re in—we’re bankrupt and unless we balance the federal budget, we’re going to have a financial collapse, and we’ll all be left with nothing, and that’s going to be unimaginably grim—how do you communicate that as an issue that gets you elected? I’m not so sure that that’s even possible, but that’s the endeavor I’m engaged in right now.

My last question may sound like a strange one: Would you support a draft for the drug war? If your 18-year-old could be sent to Nogales, Mexico, to fight and maybe die in the drug war, would Americans then start to care about it as an issue? Because there are more people killed in that border war than in Iraq.

I just think if we would examine our own lives, we would realize that all of us, everybody in society, interacts on a daily basis with people who do drugs, whether they’re family, friends, coworkers, neighbors. And are these people criminals? Of course not. Even if they have drug problems, they’re still anything but criminal in the sense of being a threat to society. That’s why I am out here running and advocating for a rational drug policy. Something finally has to be done.

Joe Schrank is Co-Founder and Editor-at-Large of The Fix. He is an interventionist and the Co-Founder and C.E.O. of The Core Company.

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