Governor Johnson has 'em jumpin'!

 By Chuck Armsbury, Razor Wire contributing writer


In recent weeks, New Mexico Republican Governor Gary Johnson has made headlines and TV news shows by stating publicly that it's time to consider decriminalizing some banned drugs. "It needs to get talked about, and one of the things that's going to get talked about is decriminalization," Johnson said in an interview in June, as reported in The Albuquerque Journal. "We really need to put all options on the table."

The governor said he has not developed a policy or legislative recommendation regarding drugs. "What I'm trying to do here is launch discussion," he said. "I think it is the number one problem facing this country today."

On MSNBC's late morning news show HotWire on August 16, Johnson compared the enforcement of drug laws and incarceration for drug crimes to the nation's failed attempt at alcohol prohibition earlier this century.

Johnson, who acknowledged during his first campaign for governor in 1994 that he had used marijuana recreationally in college and occasionally used cocaine at that time, told MSNBC many Americans believe that those caught smoking marijuana shouldn't go to jail. Yet, the governor said, 700,000 people were arrested for marijuana-related arrests in 1997.

"There is a disconnect between that belief and what is happening in this country," Johnson said. He does not condone drug use and believes that people under 21 should be prohibited from using drugs.

At first thought it seems that merely "launching a discussion" on drug policy in New Mexico would be more than enough to get denounced by one's political peers and rivals. However, even some influential Republican leaders, while criticizing Governor Johnson's public statements, sound decidedly more open to changes in drug policy.
John Dendahl, chairman of the state Republican Party, said the national GOP platform is "strongly anti-drug, pro-law enforcement and pro-stiff penalties." Dendahl, who met with Johnson on the drug issue, said he would push for a "top to bottom discussion to examine if our platform policies are sound" at the next national GOP convention in July 2000.

"There needs to be no sacred cows," Dendahl said. "We do have an internationally corrupting drug problem."

Johnson actually went further on July lst than merely suggesting discussion of drug reform, according to the Journal. After a speech dedicated chiefly to school vouchers, the governor repeated his assertion that the nation's so-called war on drugs has been "a miserable failure."

For the first time, the governor elaborated by saying that changing laws regarding marijuana possession would be a logical first step "since marijuana is considered less addictive than harder drugs such as cocaine and heroin." Indeed, marijuana addiction is an oxymoron, a contradiction; no competent marijuana research scientist has found the herb to be physically addictive.

"An immediate effect of Johnson's public remarks has been to put drug issues right into the middle of New Mexico politics," remarked Albuquerque attorney Steven Bunch.
Bunch, president of the private, nonprofit New Mexico Drug Policy Foundation, an educational group, said Johnson's contribution to the drug debate so far has been to mainstream discussion of changing policy. "Now those who talk about changing drug laws will not be immediately suspect," Bunch said.

The Governor's Office released a sample of 11 e-mails on the controversial topic, eight of which were supportive of Johnson's decision to raise the subject of decriminalization and three of which were critical.

"Thank you for having the courage to speak the truth," wrote Larry Reid. "I am not a user. Never have been. But enough is enough. Drug prohibition has re-created the violence of the roaring '20s in our streets. It is time to stop the insanity."

Coming out early against any thought of decriminalization was James Jennings, director of the New Mexico High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a Las Cruces-based joint task force of federal, state and local narcotics police.

"As far as law enforcement is concerned, we need to keep our guard up, we need to keep up the pressure," Jennings said. "I personally don't think legalization has ever been the solution. It's been a miserable failure (in some European countries)."

Jennings will clearly benefit from a public discussion of drug policy in New Mexico by learning that some European countries, notably The Netherlands, have developed pragmatic, flexible policies of enforcement which distinguish legally between "soft" drugs (marijuana, hashish) and "hard" drugs (heroin, cocaine). Police allow marijuana to be purchased and smoked at designated cafes but still come down hard on narcotics' abusers.

"I applaud the governor for looking for new solutions," said Sen. Cisco McSorley, a Democrat who represents a University of New Mexico-area district in Albuquerque. "My district has made it clear they support decriminalization of pot (marijuana) for small amounts," McSorley said. "I think we need to do a huge amount of public discussion on this."

In New Mexico possession of less than one ounce of marijuana is a petty misdemeanor with conviction resulting in a fine of up to $50, 15 days in jail or both. Possession of one to eight ounces of marijuana is a misdemeanor with possible penalties of a $1,000 fine, up to one year in jail, or both.

State Public Safety Secretary Darren White said the federal government spends about $17 billion annually to fight drugs, including about $6 million in New Mexico. "And we're probably only seizing 5 to 15 percent of all the drugs coming into the country," White said in an interview. "We're not going to arrest ourselves out of this drug problem. The governor is absolutely right. We should be looking at other options because our current policy is failing."

Governor Johnson won't have to go far to find evidence for decriminalizing marijuana.

The November Coalition and dozens of drug-reform groups throughout the country have available massive evidence for the Governor to request and consider. However, the ugly truth in this century is that drug (we include alcohol as a drug of concern here) prohibitionists have seldom used scientific evidence, or any facts at all, to justify their repressive legislation.

Anti-drug warrior Harry Anslinger in the l930s, as head of the new Federal Bureau of Narcotics, presented no evidence while ramming through his proposals to an ignorant, uncaring and embattled Congress warring with Roosevelt initiatives.

New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia's l936 comprehensive study of marijuana use should have foiled Anslinger's mad, racist, fearmongering crusade against killer weed. But it didn't. Anslinger's devious l937 tax legislation put marijuana into the dangerous-drug category where it remains today.

Over the next four decades other initiatives to decriminalize marijuana failed before they got started, due in large measure to Anslinger's heavyhanded 30-year rule as the Drug Czar's Czar. Even Richard Nixon's Shafer Commission of l973 found the "weed" to be harmless, not addictive, potentially therapeutic, thus not acceptable to the well-disciplined, entrenched Anslinger clones in the burgeoning Drug Enforcement Administration.

Governor Johnson has simply added his voice to a loud and dissident chorus of citizens of all political persuasions who call for an end to crushing, irrational drug laws. Let's hope that Johnson will marshal ample evidence and numerous allies in his reform efforts.
It will be a great battle, a hard sell Johnson admits.

Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM), said through a spokesman that most members of Congress want more enforcement of existing drug laws. "There is no movement at the federal level," for decriminalization, said Steve Bell, his chief of staff.

Domenici recently led a charge in Congress to obtain more federal money for drug enforcement in New Mexico, especially to deal with heroin use in northern New Mexico.
The November Coalition will be closely watching this development and will continue our campaign from the heartland to encourage other governors and politicians to demonstrate political courage as New Mexico's Governor Gary Johnson has done in the century's longest war against the American people.