In a visit to Washington last week, New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson got red carpet treatment from drug policy reform advocates because of his call for drug legalization. Johnson's views are not resonating politically however, and he is the first to admit that this issue is "politically a zero for anyone holding office." Although one-third of the U.S. population lives in one of the 11 states where marijuana has been decriminalized, efforts to relax anti-drug laws have been dead in the water for more than two decades.
Johnson, a 46-year-old triathlete who admits he smoked marijuana and tried cocaine as a University of New Mexico student in the early 1970s, said he has no plans to try to legalize drugs in his own state. He wants to change the federal policy on drugs, which he says results mainly in causing an expensive overcrowding of the nation's prisons.
"Drugs are a bad choice, they are a handicap, but should you go to jail? I say 'no you shouldn't, " Johnson said in a speech last Tuesday at a day-long forum sponsored by the Libertarian Cato Institute.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that more than 277,000 offenders were imprisoned for a drug law violation in 1997, which accounts for 21 percent of state prisoners and over 60 percent of federal prisoners. In August, the bureau reported that state correctional costs have shot up 83 percent in this decade, and experts say the widespread jailing of non-violent drug offenders partly accounts for the staggering increase.
In the 1970s, nearly a dozen states decriminalized, or reduced the penalties, for possession and use of small amounts of marijuana. In Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina and Oregon, those caught with around an ounce of marijuana or less are only given a civil fine, like a traffic ticket.
Ohio is the most tolerant state when it comes to marijuana possession. Those caught with the equivalent of about 3 ounces or 100 grams of marijuana or less are fined $100.
But there has been little action on the issue since. Earlier this year, legislators in Nevada and New Hampshire debated proposals to reduce the penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana, but in both states the proposals were rejected.
Indiana has the harshest drug laws, according to Keith Stroup, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
"In Indiana for two ounces (of marijuana) you will be arrested, any money on you will be considered drug money, if you are in an automobile you will lose your car, and your license will be revoked for 90 days," Stroup said. Indiana is one of 26 states that have adopted a "smoke a joint, lose your license" policy.
Last month, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, director of the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy, called Johnson's advocacy of drug legalization "a terrible model for the rest of the nation."
In a written statement, McCaffrey said: "Sadly, Gov. Johnson does not understand that drugs aren't dangerous because they are illegal--they are illegal because they are dangerous."
In his speech, Johnson reduced the debate over legalizing drugs to a cost-benefit analysis. In the late 1970s, the country was spending about $1 billion each year on the drug war and a few hundred thousand people were being arrested on drug charges. Today, the figure is about $19 billion and in 1997, 1.6 million people were arrested on drug charges, he said.
During that period, drug use declined by half in the United States, McCaffery's office says.
"Does that mean if drug use declines in half again that we're going to be spending $36 billion federally and that we're going to be locking up 3.2 million people?" Johnson asked rhetorically.
"Played out to its end scenario, when we're left with a few hundred users nationwide, we're going to be spending the entire gross national product on drug control," he said.
Johnson is finding few converts among his political brethren. A few days after the New Mexico governor's appearance, Maine Independent Gov. Angus King called for the defeat of a referendum in Maine next month that would legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes.
Approval of the proposal would put Maine on a "slippery slope" that would lead to wider use of the drug, King said. He added that states like California that have approved medical marijuana have found that the law has been abused.
In 1996 and 1998 voters in Alaska, California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington passed referenda authorizing the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.
Arizona went one step beyond that and approved the use of all Schedule I drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, for medicinal purposes. Proposition 200, also made Arizona the only state in the country to prohibit incarceration of first-and second-time nonviolent drug offenders in favor of mandatory treatment.
Marijuana decriminalization bills were introduced in Nevada and New Hampshire in this year's legislative sessions, although both efforts were shot down. Nevada is the last state in the country to make it a felony for the possession of any amount of marijuana.
"In Nevada, gambling is legal, and in some counties prostitution is legal, but somehow they make it a felony to possess a joint," Stroup said.
Some U.S. cities have passed their own marijuana decriminalization laws, such as Athens, Ga., Ann Arbor, Mich., Amherst, Mass., Berkeley, Calif., and Boulder, Colo.
In Pittsburgh, Penn., if someone is caught with an ounce or less of marijuana they are fined under the Noxious Weed Act, an obscure law passed at the turn of the century to fine people who were bringing foreign vines into the area, such as Jute and Kenaf.
New Mexico Gov. Johnson has no plans of decriminalizing marijuana in his state because he said he was "elected to enforce the laws on the books." But, in his federal legalization scenario, drugs would be controlled through regulation, taxation and better education about their negative effects.
Drugs would remain illegal for minors, and crimes committed under their influence would carry stiffer penalties. Johnson also said employers should reserve the right to screen job applicants or employees for drug use.
"I think that a legalization model is going to be a dynamic process," he said. "We're going to make mistakes in legislation on how we legalize it. We're going to fine-tune it as we go along."