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WASHINGTON -- "We need to legalize marijuana,'I New Mexico Gov. Gary
Johnson said, and the crowd cheered wildly.

The crowd, it should be noted, was gathered at the annual conference this
week of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

"I don't recall that we've ever had any high elected officials speak to our
conferences,'I said NORML Executive Director Keith Stroup.

Johnson wasn't really high, presumably. The conservative Republican
governor has said he stopped smoking marijuana and snorting cocaine decades
ago and hasn't had a sip of booze in 13 years. These days, he gets high by
running marathons and hang gliding.

But now, Johnson, 48, stood smiling in a place most politicians would flee
in terror: at a lectern in front of a banner reading "Stop Arresting
Responsible Marijuana Smokers."

"Most users of marijuana are responsible users," he said. "They're not
doing any harm to anybody. Having smoked it and given it up, I would ask
you not to smoke pot. But should it be a criminal offense? No."

"The war on drugs," Johnson said, "is a miserable failure." He advocates
treating marijuana like alcohol and moving toward a "medical model" for
dealing with stronger drugs and decriminalizing them.

Johnson also dares to speak honestly about his drug use. Unlike politicians
who admit to having "experimented" with drugs in their youth, Johnson says
he smoked a ton of pot and it was "kind of fun." That bit of heresy in 1999
infuriated Barry McCaffrey, then the federal drug czar, who denounced the
governor as "Puff Daddy Johnson."

Reminded of that incident, Johnson shrugs and smiles. Honesty might work
better than hysteria in warning kids off drugs, he suggests. In high
school, he was taught that marijuana would make him crazy. Then, he tried it.

"The thing that struck me was that this whole scare story was a lie," he said.

As a student at the University of New Mexico in the early 1970s, he says,
he smoked pot maybe two or three times a week. He liked it. He tried
cocaine a few times, and he liked that a bit too much.

"I understood why people get hooked on that stuff," he said. "I get in
trouble for saying what I'm about to say, but, well, it was great! It was
an unbelievable high! I understood why this was not anything I wanted to
get involved with because -- wow!"

Now, Johnson says, his drug use was foolish.

"It's diminishing returns: The more you use it, the less you get out of
it," he said.

After college, Johnson started a handyman business with the woman who is
now his wife. In 20 years, it had grown into a construction company with
1,000 employees.

Johnson did not reveal his heretical views on the drug war until after he
was re-elected to his second -- and, by law, final -- term in 1998.

"Half the budget for law enforcement, half the budget for courts, half the
budget for prison is drug-related. Is there a bigger issue?" he said.

The public response has been positive, Johnson said. Letters, phone calls
and e-mail messages are running 20-to-1 in his favor, he claims.

"A lot of politicians tell me that they believe in what I'm doing but they
could never do it themselves," he said.

Newshawk: Jane Marcus
Pubdate: Thu, 26 Apr 2001
Source: San Jose Mercury News (CA)
Copyright: 2001 San Jose Mercury News
Contact: letters@sjmercury.com
Website: The Mercury News - Bay Area news, sports, business, entertainment, lifestyle and commentary
Details: Overload Warning
Author: Peter Carlson
Bookmark: Overload Warning (Gov. Gary Johnson)
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