Gary Johnson, the Republican former governor of New Mexico, was on MSNBC with Cenk Uygur to talk about the need to end marijuana prohibition. He knocked it out of the park:
CENK: Governor, should we legalize it?
JOHNSON: We should legalize marijuana. I think that 90% of the drug problem is prohibition related, not use related. And when I talk about legalizing marijuana, it’s never going to be legal for kids to smoke marijuana, it’s never going to be legal to smoke pot, become impaired and get behind the wheel of a car. I think we should make the same comparisons to alcohol that exist with marijuana, and regarding all the other drugs I would suggest that we adopt harm reduction strategies, which is looking at the issue first as a health issue rather than a criminal justice issue.
>Half of what we spend on law enforcement, the courts and the prisoins is drug related. And what are we getting for all of that? Well, we’re arresting 1.8 million people a year in this country on drug related crime.
CENK: But governor, the issue seems to be that if the Democrats ever proposed this, the Republicans would demagogue it, honestly. Is that false, or is there any way that might change?
JOHNSON: No, that’s not my experience. My experience is this is not a party issue. It’s an issue with everybody who’s in elected office. Everyone who’s in elected office won’t touch this, it’s the Emperor that has no clothes, and nobody wants to touch it. But I think the people are way ahead on this. And of course it’s on the ballot in California to legalize it this fall — control it, regulate it, tax it.
Pew Foundation estimated that the price of marijuana would drop from $380 to $38 an ounce with a 50% tax on that. So I look at this from a cost benefit analysis. What are we spending and what are we getting?
And of course there is the human toll involved in this. The situation with drug abuse is that it’s always made worse because it’s criminal.
CENK: So how do we get the politicians to flip? Because you’re right, the whole country’s getting there…California’s there, many other states are beginning that process, but we can’t just move the politicians. Look prohibition didn’t work for alcohol, and we realized that fairly quickly and we changed that. Now we have this mindset that if we’re going down the wrong path, we have to stay there. How do we change that?
JOHNSON: You know what, I think the issue is at a tipping point. During the last election, Massachusetts voted to decriminalize pot by a vote of 65% to 35%. I’ve smoked marijuana, I’ve drank alcohol in my life. I don’t do either today, but I will tell you from experience that marijuana is safer than alcohol. Citizens of Denver got to vote on decriminalizing marijuana on the basis of marijuana being safer than alcohol. Six hundred thousand Denver citizens agree with me on that one.
So I think that it is at a tipping point. People are ahead of the politicians on this one, and it’s still going to happen. It’s going to happen. I think statistically we’re about two and a half years from 50% of Americans actually understanding this. From my own experience, it’s really thin ice. That with just a little bit of knowledge on this issue, people seem to move on this issue. People seem to be embracing this notion of “gee it’s not working, we really have to do something different.”
CENK: It’s really good to see former politicians getting on board for that, Republicans etc. So thank you for joining us, we really appreciate the conversation.
JOHNSON: Well I’ll just tell you too — in office I espoused this. I looked at it hard in 1999 and really came to this conclusion while in office, trying to implement this change then.
Last week’s surprise statement by former Mexican President Vicente Fox in support of “legalizing production, sales and distribution” of drugs made big headlines around the world.
Fox’s statement, first published Saturday in his blog, went far beyond a 2009 joint declaration by former Presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico and Cesar Gaviria of Colombia. In that statement, the three former leaders questioned the effectiveness of the U.S. war on drugs and proposed de-criminalizing possession of marijuana for personal use.
In a separate interview, White House drug czar R. Gil Kerlikowske told me that drug legalization is a “non-starter” in the Obama administration.
Kerlikowske disputed the idea that alcohol prohibition drove up crime in the United States in the 1920s, arguing that there were no reliable crime statistics at the time.
After Obama took office, the transition team took three polls on its website about which issues were most important to Obama’s supporters. Marijuana reform won all three. And a recent Colorado poll by AmericaVotes indicates that 45% of Obama 2008 “surge” voters say they are more likely to vote if marijuana legalization is on the ballot.
It’s always mystified me that in the wake of that kind of intense support for legalization from one of his key electoral constituencies, Obama has always been pretty dismissive of the whole issue.
In 2004 Obama supported decriminalization, but in early 2008 “reversed course and declared he does not support eliminating criminal penalties for marijuana possession and use.” In 2009 the Justice Department issued a directive not to “waste resources” by raiding medical marijuana dispensaries and growers that were operating legally, but Obama’s DEA appointee Michele Leonhart has been splitting hairs right and left and finding ways to ignore it.
It’s no mystery, however, that Gary Johnson has an eye on the 2012 presidential election. Conor Friesdorf, subbing for Andrew Sullivan, says Johnson is “a man who deserves to be viable in 2012. And Ron Paul says that if he doesn’t run in 2012, he could see himself supporting Johnson.
Johnson has been touring the country, appearing on shows like the Colbert Report speaking in favor of legalization. And unless I miss my guess, courting one of Obama’s key constituencies: young voters.