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A conservative Republican and a fitness fanatic, New Mexico Gov. Gary
Johnson doesn't even sip alcohol, let alone take drugs. The governor
doesn't want anyone else to, either.

But he also doesn't want people who take drugs to end up in prison.

That's why the tough-on-crime former businessman is leading the revolt
against the way the war on drugs is being waged in his state.

Johnson insists that making drug use a crime merely fills up prisons and
courtrooms while discouraging addicts from seeking treatment.

''We cannot continue to arrest and lock people up for crimes that are
committed against oneself,'' he said.

Instead, he believes drug users should be prosecuted for any damage, or
potential damage, they cause while on drugs. For instance, he supports
penalties for driving under the influence.

''If you are going to use it and harm someone or put yourself into a
position to do harm, then that should always be criminal,'' he said.

This spring, Johnson signed legislation enacting part of his plan:
increasing drug treatment spending by about 35 percent and legalizing the
sale of syringes to try to reduce the spread of HIV, which leads to AIDS.

Next year, his last in office, Johnson will push the rest of his program:
diverting users from jail to treatment, decriminalizing possession of small
amounts of marijuana and making it harder to seize property associated with
drug sales.

Other states, including California and Arizona, have liberalized their drug

But those changes were made by direct vote. Voters, according to polls and
election results, tend to be more willing to embrace change than elected
officials, who often fear being labeled ''soft on crime.''

In California, for example, many elected officials, including Democratic
Gov. Gray Davis, opposed Proposition 36, which diverts drug users from jail
to treatment. It passed with 61 percent of the vote.

Johnson's effort represents a test case. He's the first governor who is
trying to overhaul drug laws by persuading elected officials, rather than

New Mexico, which doesn't have the initiative process, might seem like an
unlikely place to lead a political movement. It's a relatively poor and
rural state with 1.7 million residents.

But the state, which is on a heroin route from Mexico to Denver, has
serious drug problems. Rio Arriba, an impoverished county in the north, has
the highest heroin addiction rate in the nation, state officials say.

New Mexico was one of the first states to dramatically reduce the penalty
for possessing small amounts of marijuana to a $50 fine.

''We've always been open to new ideas,'' said Democratic state Sen. Cisco

Johnson believes that New Mexico lawmakers are more ready than ever to
accept new approaches to drugs thanks to his tireless campaign and a shift
in public opinion.

''New Mexico is having a more advanced discussion on this topic than
anywhere else in the nation,'' he said. ''Last year we wouldn't have
dreamed that we would be where we're at now.''

Still, Johnson faces opposition from his state's Legislature. Republican
state Rep. Ron Godbey, a retired Air Force officer, argues that
decriminalizing drugs tells young people that experimenting with drugs is
acceptable. He believes that the number of addicts will go up dramatically
if Johnson's program passes.

''New Mexico wasn't ready for this and I hope we never will be,'' he said.

Unlikely revolutionary

In a modern state Capitol designed more like an art museum than a stately
government building, Johnson stands out. Surrounded by the modern art that
draws the wealthy, the elite and the tasteful to Santa Fe, Johnson wears
cowboy boots and jeans to work.

The 48-year-old governor had no political experience before winning office
in 1994. Instead, he had a personal fortune and a record as a determined
businessman who built a thriving construction business.

Johnson ran in 1994 and 1998 as a tough-on-crime, free-market Republican
who favored term limits, tax cuts and school vouchers, and professed a
willingness to shake up the system. He also freely admitted that he had
experimented with marijuana and cocaine as a college student.

But he never mentioned his views on drug policy.

Republican Godbey said his omission amounts to a ''fraud'' perpetrated on
New Mexico voters. ''If he had talked about this, he never would have
gotten elected,'' he said.

McSorley, a Democrat, also faults Johnson, saying his omission sent the
signal that a frank discussion on drugs would be rejected by voters.

''It sent the wrong message to state legislators,'' he said, ''the message
that this couldn't be discussed openly.''

Johnson vetoed legislation in his first term that he now embraces as part
of his drug program expanded treatment and changing the state's drug asset
forfeiture laws to protect property owners.

The governor doesn't mind confessing that he's changed his mind. In fact,
his homespun philosophy, Seven Principles of Good Government, includes
''admitting mistakes immediately.''

Johnson acknowledges his earlier vetoes were mistakes and he agrees with
critics that he should have been more open in 1998 about his views on drugs.

''You could say that it was a lack of courage,'' he said.

Johnson said that he began privately questioning how the drug war was being
waged in 1995, when he asked Cabinet members to look at alternatives,
including decriminalization.

He waited until 1999 to go public. ''It was a conscious decision to elevate
the discussion,'' he said.

Since then, he said, he has learned that there are constructive
alternatives to locking up drug users. He credits the Lindesmith Center for
educating him.

The New York-based think tank, which set up an office in Santa Fe to push
Johnson's program, is funded in part by businessman/philanthropist George
Soros. Soros helped bankroll California's Proposition 215, which legalized
medical marijuana in 1996, and Proposition 36, which diverts some drug
users from jail to treatment.

When he first came out against the drug war, Johnson said constituent
comment was in favor by an 8-1 ratio. Now he said support is even greater,
about 20-1.

By contrast, constituents who contact him are split on school vouchers, his
second priority.

Some Republicans see Johnson as a heretic, a traitor to his party.

''The party is somewhat embarrassed by what he's done,'' Godbey said.
''They don't like to talk about it because they want to project unity, but
individually they are upset.''

Johnson insists that he has solid Republican support. Republicans, he said,
should agree that people should not be prosecuted for harming themselves.

''Republicans say, 'If you're so stupid to smoke cigarettes then so be it,
but lay off the cigarette manufacturers,''' he said. ''Amazingly,
Republicans disconnect on this issue. This is about personal responsibility
and holding people accountable for their actions.''

Democrats, who control the Legislature, may be more open to Johnson's
program, but some don't trust him.

''He has always been confrontational and derogatory toward the
Legislature,'' McSorley said.

Johnson admits that his unwillingness to cut deals with lawmakers in the
past may hurt him now. But he said it is precisely this kind of maverick,
lone-wolf approach that gives him the courage to discuss something most
politicians ignore.

He believes his experience as a teetotaler gives him added credibility.

Thirteen years ago he gave up alcohol once he found that even a couple of
drinks interfered with his demanding training schedule, which begins at 5
a.m. each day with two hours of bike riding.

''This is partially due to athletics, but I'm a naturally high kind of
guy,'' he said. ''I've found that all drugs are a handicap.''

Johnson is focused on improving his time in triathlons. That's one reason
he plans to leave elected office permanently after his term is up next year.

He also wants to climb Mount Everest.

It will be a tough climb, but then so is changing the state's drug laws.

Johnson said he takes the same attitude toward both goals.

''I'm not holding stock in the outcome, but the journey,'' he said. ''I'll
be on that mountain, whether I get to the top or not.''

Newshawk: DrugSense DrugSense
Pubdate: Mon, 30 Apr 2001
Source: Copley News Service (US Wire)
Copyright: 2001 Copley News Service
Details: Overload Warning
Section: Domestic, Non-Washington, General News Item
Author: Bill Ainsworth
Bookmark: Overload Warning (Johnson, Gary)
Note: Headline by Map editor.
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