Almost two years ago, Republican Gov. Gary Johnson's public statements
about the failures of the drug war were met with statewide skepticism and
bipartisan outrage. Since then, Johnson--a triathlete quick to note that he
is drug- and alcohol-free--has faced what he calls a "political
crucifixion" for advocating the decriminalization of marijuana, among other
major drug-policy reforms. "I happen to have committed political suicide,"
Johnson says. "But somehow I've come back from the dead on this issue."

Last year, at the request of the maverick governor, a panel of advisers
evaluated New Mexico's drug policy and produced a report which, in turn,
inspired several reform bills in the state legislature. On March 21,
Johnson announced the passage of four major drug reform laws in New Mexico.
The new legislation will restore voting rights to felons after their
sentences are completed, and permit pharmacies to sell syringes to drug
users without the risk of criminal liability. Another new law will provide
civil and criminal immunity to a person who administers, uses or possesses
an opioid antagonist--a drug used to counteract a heroin overdose that is
illegal in many states. To address the skyrocketing number of women in
prison, New Mexico will create a women's drug court offering the option of
treatment for the last 18 months of a nonviolent offender's sentence.

Numerous other bills--including measures to decriminalize small amounts
of marijuana, legalize medical marijuana, reform civil asset forfeiture
laws, and provide increased funding for probation and drug treatment
--moved rapidly through legislative committees with bipartisan support. But
they eventually fell prey to the end-of-session deadline. Taken together,
the legislation constitutes "the most comprehensive drug policy reform
agenda ever considered by a state legislature," says Katharine Huffman,
director of The Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation's New Mexico chapter.

Johnson, whose second and final term ends in 2002, has insisted that the
high cost of incarcerating drug users is a costly and short-sighted
solution to what should be considered a public health problem. An avowed
admirer of the progressive drug policies of the Netherlands and
Switzerland, Johnson believes that New Mexico's approach toward substance
abuse is bound to have a "positive impact" on rates of crime, incarceration
and the spread of infectious diseases, including HIV and hepatitis C.

With more than 2 million people in prison--a quarter of whom are
incarcerated on drug-related charges-- Johnson insists that the
decriminalization of marijuana and the elimination of mandatory minimums
are logical steps forward for the United States, even though most
politicians have hesitated to embrace such ideas. The governor hopes New
Mexico's bold drug policy reform will influence other states to do the
same. "There's no question that this issue is going to be a tipping point,"
he says.

In New Mexico, support for drug reform is running high: Two-thirds of New
Mexicans now support eliminating criminal penalties for possession of small
amounts of marijuana and providing treatment, not incarceration, for users
of harder drugs. Last November, five states passed some form of drug policy
reform. California's Proposition 36 mandates treatment, instead of
incarceration, for first- and second-time drug offenders.

"Rather than continuing with the fiction that we can create a drug-free
society, the alternative approach is to acknowledge that drugs are here to
stay," says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of The Lindesmith Center.
"We should focus instead on reducing the death, disease, crime and
suffering associated with drugs and our failed prohibitionist policies."

Pubdate: Mon, 30 Apr 2001
Source: In These Times Magazine (US)
Copyright: 2001 In These Times
Author: Silja J. Talvi