Drug stance makes N.M. governor unusual

He admits past use, says policies need review

August 22, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Long before he became governor of New Mexico, Gary E. Johnson was an athlete. Almost every morning at 5, he takes off on a long run, a swim or a bicycle ride, training for a marathon or a triathlon. As governor, he has ridden his bike five times across the state, run 25 miles in Army gear and jumped off a 10,000-foot-high mountain on a hang-glider.

Those activities alone might make him unique among the 50 governors.

But Johnson, 46, a second-term Republican, is also unusual in another respect.

He unflinchingly admits he used marijuana and cocaine in college and wants the nation to consider alternatives to the so-called war on drugs, which he contends is failing through an overemphasis on prosecution and incarceration. He goes so far as to suggest that the federal government should consider the decriminalization of drugs, or perhaps even legalization, which would mean they could be sold for profit.

And he contends that the costly campaign against drugs has left courts and prisons overwhelmed with people arrested for possessing only small amounts of drugs. Drugs, he says, could be regulated like alcohol and people could be held accountable for what they did under their influence.

These ideas make him the highest-ranking elected official in the United States to offer what are considered wildly unpopular alternatives to current drug policies. But they come at a time when questions of past drug use have become commonplace for aspiring and sitting presidents. Just last week, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, the Republican front-runner in the 2000 presidential race, reluctantly answered such questions, saying he could have passed the challenge of an FBI background check in his father's presidency. And while President Clinton has admitted he once tried marijuana, he said he did not inhale.

Johnson, a former businessman who considers himself as much a libertarian as a Republican, said he regarded politicians as "disingenuous" if they tried to hide what the public had a right to know.

"I smoked marijuana in college; that was something I did," he said last week in an interview at the Capitol in Santa Fe. "I used cocaine on a couple of occasions. It was not something that anybody would have ever known. But I knew if I was going to run for office, I should 'fess up. And if I didn't win, so be it."

Residents of New Mexico have long accepted their governor's past, which he revealed in his first campaign. He won re-election in 1998 with 55 percent of the vote, compared with 50 percent four years before, when a candidate from the Green Party siphoned votes from Gov. Bruce King, a Democrat. In winning last year, Johnson became the first governor of New Mexico to win a second consecutive four-year term.

But his crusade for alternatives to drug prohibition, which he began several weeks ago, has drawn wide criticism, even from leading state Republicans, like Sen. Pete V. Domenici and Rep. Heather A. Wilson.

They generally disagree with Johnson's contention that the drug war has failed and cost the nation hundreds of billions of dollars annually that could otherwise be spent on education and other necessities.

It is an argument Johnson makes often, traveling in New Mexico and beyond, emboldened by his promise to seek no other political office when his term ends in 2002.

"We are spending incredible amounts of our resources on incarceration, law enforcement and courts," he said. "As an extension of everything I've done in office, I made a cost-benefit analysis, and this one really stinks."

Just how the country might bring drug sales under federal control or what penalties should apply to drug charges are things Johnson has not sorted out, he said. Nor would he want anyone to assume he is advocating drug use. His use ended after college, at the University of New Mexico, he said.

"I would like to see a discussion on this, A to Z," he said.

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