A lonely stand for drug legalization

Maverick: New Mexico's Republican governor has been assailed for advocating the decriminalization of narcotics. He could compare notes with Kurt Schmoke.

October 24, 1999|By V. Dion Haynes

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.-- Gary Johnson used marijuana and cocaine in his younger days. Now Johnson, 46, shuns illegal drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, Coca-Cola -- even candy bars.

Not that unusual a transformation for a man who came of age in 1960s America.

Today, he advocates decriminalizing marijuana, cocaine and heroin, arguing that the government should spend its financial resources elsewhere.

Again, not that unusual a stance -- unless you know that Johnson is a Republican, the governor of New Mexico and the highest-ranking elected official in the United States to advocate legalization.

In taking his controversial positions, he has moved the debate over national drug policy -- a debate that largely has been confined to academics and think tanks -- into the political arena.

Johnson said he intends to use his position to advance the issue nationally.

He and other advocates want the federal government to relinquish the authority to regulate drugs, much as it did with alcohol in the 1920s during the waning days of Prohibition, and allow state and local governments to decide the issue for themselves.

If they opt for legalization, states and local governments would regulate, distribute and tax the drugs. The theory is that this would ensure the safety of the drugs, reduce crime associated with the black market and provide more revenues.

Johnson has been harshly criticized by the Republican Party, members of his anti-drug task force, law enforcement authorities from across New Mexico, the lieutenant governor and federal drug policy director Barry McCaffrey.

"Drugs aren't dangerous because they are illegal; they are illegal because they are dangerous," McCaffrey said.

The governor, however, argues that now is the time for a new approach. Recent polls show that 13.6 million people use drugs, half the number in 1979.

"You understand how futile what we're doing is. At what point do you reach critical mass and say, 'Enough is enough?'" said Johnson.

"By legalizing drugs, we could reduce the amount of drug abuse we have in this country," he added. "Law enforcement would be able to enforce laws we want them to but can't because half their focus is on drugs."

Before Johnson's announcement, the most prominent supporters of decriminalizing drugs included conservative commentator William F. Buckley and Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

Writing in a 1996 National Review article, Schmoke said that drug prohibition "reduces the number of police officers available to investigate violent crime; fosters adulterated, even poisonous, drugs, and contributes significantly to the transmission of HIV." But under a system of legalized drugs, he wrote, the government would "control the price, distribution and purity of addictive substances -- which it already does with prescription drugs. This would take most of the profit out of drug trafficking, and it is profits that drive the crime."

But Schmoke was a mayor. Johnson is a governor, and his stance has galvanized both supporters and critics.

Those who support him argue that New Mexico spends too much money on building prisons and courts and too little money on constructing schools and hiring new teachers. He also has struck a chord nationally with the Libertarian Party, which, despite Johnson's professed disinterest in a higher office, is pressing him to become its presidential candidate next year.

McCaffrey, who asserts that federal drug policy is working, has a different view.

"The governor's actions serve as a terrible model for the rest of the nation," the drug policy director said. "Whether you call it legalization, decriminalization or drug policy reform, the bottom line is that the agenda espoused by people like Governor Johnson would put more drugs into the hands of our children and make drugs more available on our nation's streets."

John Dendahl, chairman of the Republican Party of New Mexico, said that some in the GOP are so angry over Johnson's position that they "would write a resolution absolutely condemning him."

"We are anti-drugs, pro-strict law enforcement and pro-severe penalties," Dendahl said. "I'm asking [Johnson] to leave the drug discussion to others and to restore his focus on New Mexico issues."

Johnson acknowledges that the issue is volatile.

Though he has privately supported the legalization effort since his college days, he said he deliberately waited until his final term to publicly disclose those views. Johnson, who has served two terms, said he will return to the private sector and will not pursue another political office when his term ends in 2003.

"I would like to see this as a political issue," Johnson said. He added: "I've got three years left. I'm going to make the most of that."

He has put some of his controversial ideas to the test in New Mexico, with decidedly mixed results.

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