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Republican governor wages lone battle to legalize drugs
April 26, 2002 Posted: 9:45 AM EDT (1345 GMT)
Changes in drug policy have been a priority for Johnson, who's in his last year as governor.
SANTA FE, New Mexico (Reuters) -- New Mexico's Republican Governor Gary Johnson has spent the past three years waging a quixotic battle against the political establishments of both parties for the legalization of marijuana and other drugs.
The "war against drugs," he said, has not only been a colossal failure but has done immense harm to U.S. society.
"We should be treating the drugs problem as a health issue, not as a criminal problem," Johnson told Reuters in an interview Wednesday.
Johnson, who recently completed the Boston Marathon in just over three hours and is planning to climb Mount Everest next year, freely admits regularly using marijuana as a young man and occasionally trying cocaine.
"We've been arresting 1.6 million people a year in this country, half on marijuana charges, 90 percent of them for possession only. The entire system is clogged with non-violent drugs-related arrests. I will live to see 80 million Americans with non-violent, drugs-related arrests," he said.
Among the most unusual senior Republican politicians the United States has seen for many years, Johnson has made the issue a top priority since winning election to a second term in 1998.
The police and courts, he argues, should be going after people who really harmed others, such as drunk drivers, rather than those who smoked pot at home and did no harm to anyone.
Johnson, 49, who is in his final year as governor and said he decided long ago not to seek other elected offices, has achieved some modest legislative successes.
But the most dramatic and far-reaching items of his package failed to win approval by the New Mexico state legislature, which is controlled by Democrats.
LEGALIZING MARIJUANA REJECTED
The legislature, which adjourned in mid-February and will not meet again during his term as governor, enacted bills giving judges more flexibility when sentencing people convicted of non-violent drugs offenses and allowed convicted offenders to be eligible for federal benefits such as welfare or food stamps.
In addition, it restored the right to vote for felons who had completed their sentences; permitted pharmacists to sell syringes without fear of prosecution if they were used by addicts; and created immunity for people using or administering medications that reverse the effects of heroin or opium and prevent overdoses.
But legislators killed bills that would have legalized marijuana for some medical patients, decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana and allowed judges to send some non-violent drug offenders to treatment rather than putting them in jail.
Johnson said 90 percent of the drugs problem in the United States arose from prohibition rather than use.
"Give heroin to addicts in controlled programs, such as the one in Zurich, Switzerland, and they are alive and functioning and they don't commit crimes," he said.
"There are 15,000 heroin addicts in New Mexico. They have one thing on their mind tomorrow morning: where will they get their fix and how will they pay for it?"
The governor said the war on drugs also discriminated against blacks and Hispanics.
"If you are arrested and you are of color, it is seven times more likely you will go to jail. This war is the largest single reason for mothers being behind bars and their kids being made wards of the state," he said. "We're not catching drugs kingpins, we're catching the mules."
He is particularly upset at the attitude of the federal government toward efforts to legalize marijuana to help terminally ill patients cope with pain.
"When citizens of any state have been given the opportunity to vote for medical marijuana, they have voted in favor. For the federal government to thwart what is clearly the will of the people is discouraging."
In Johnson's opinion, the best way to reduce drug use among young people is through honest education, not the kind of propaganda they hear now which tells them that smoking marijuana will destroy their lives. Young people should be told the dangers of such as ecstasy but should not be imprisoned for using it.
After leaving office, Johnson said he intended to remain active on the issue, seeking to educate elected officials and candidates for office about what he sees as the folly of current policies.
"If we are going to continue to criminalize drugs use, we should also be criminalizing alcohol and tobacco. We did that once with alcohol and it just didn't work," he said.
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