Gov. Gary Johnson on drug policy

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I am a "cost/benefit" analysis person. What's the cost and what's the benefit? A couple of things scream out as failing to meet cost/benefit criteria. One is education. Regrettably, all I have done since I have taken office when it comes to education is put more and more money into a system that by all measurement is just doing a little bit worse from year to year. So I am now pressing for school vouchers. Bring competition to public school systems, and it will make a positive difference.

The other cost/benefit disaster is the war on drugs. We are currently spending $50 billion a year on the war on drugs. For that amount of money, it is an absolute failure. The "outrageous" hypothesis that I have been raising is that under a legalized scenario, we could actually hold drug use level or see it decline. That is debatable. But with respect to drug abuse, I don't think you can argue about that. Drug abuse would clearly decline under a legalized system.

Let me make something clear. I'm not pro-drug. I'm against drugs. Don't do drugs. Drugs are a real handicap. Don't do alcohol. Don't do tobacco. They are a real handicap.

There's another issue beyond cost/benefit criteria. Should you go to jail for simply doing drugs? I say no. People ask me, "What do you tell kids?" Well, you tell them the truth. You tell them that by legalizing drugs, we can control them, regulate them, and tax them. If we legalize drugs, we might have a healthier society. And you explain to them how that might take place. But you tell them that drugs are a bad choice. Don't do drugs. But if you do drugs, we're not going to throw you in jail for that.

Under a legalized scenario, there is going to be a whole new set of laws. You can't do drugs if you're under 21 years of age. You can't sell drugs to kids. Employers should be able to discriminate against drug users. Employers should be able to conduct drug tests. Do drugs and do crime? Enhance the penalty for the crime in the same way we do today with guns. Do drugs and drive? There should be a law similar to the law we have now for driving under the influence of alcohol.

Does anybody want to press a button that would retroactively punish the 80 million Americans who have done illegal drugs over the years? I might point out that I'm one of those individuals. In running for my first term in office, I offered up the fact that I had smoked marijuana. And the media were very quick to say, "Oh, so you experimented with marijuana?" "No," I said, "I smoked marijuana!" This is something that I did, along with a lot of other people. I look back on it now and I view drugs as a handicap. I stopped because it was a handicap. But did my friends and I belong in jail? I don't think that we should continue to lock up Americans because of bad choices.

Legalization means we educate, regulate, tax, and control the estimated $400 billion a year drug industry. We need to make drugs a controlled substance just like alcohol. Perhaps we ought to let the government regulate it; let the government grow it; let the government manufacture it, distribute it, market it; and if that doesn't lead to decreased drug use, I don't know what would!

A teenager today will tell you that a bottle of beer is harder to come by than a marijuana joint. The Partnership for a Drug Free America was bragging to me that it was responsible for the "Here's your brain, and here's your brain on drugs" ad. Well, some kids believe that, perhaps three-year-olds, maybe even nine- or ten-year-olds. But at some point, kids have friends who smoke marijuana for the first time. Like everybody else, I was told that if you smoke marijuana, you're going to go crazy. You're going to lose your mind. Then you smoked marijuana for the first time and none of those things happened. Actually, it was kind of nice. And then you realized that they weren't telling you the truth. I envision advertising that tells the truth, which says drugs are kind of nice and that's the lure of drugs. But if you continue to do drugs, they are a real handicap. We need to have an honest educational campaign about drugs.

Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey has made me his poster child for drug legalization. He claims that drug use has been cut in half and that we are winning the drug war. I don't buy that for a minute, but let's assume that it's true. Let's assume that drug use has, in fact, dropped in half. Well, if it has, in the late 1970s we were spending a billion dollars federally on the drug war. Today, the feds are spending $19 billion a year on the drug war. In the late 1970s, we were arresting a few hundred thousand people. Today, we're arresting 1.6 million people. Does that mean that as drug use declines by another half we're going to be spending $36 billion federally and arresting 3.2 million people annually? To follow that logic, when we're left with a few hundred users nationwide, we're going to be spending the entire gross national product on drug law enforcement!

I want to tell you a little bit about the response that I've been getting to what I've been saying. Politically, this is a zero. For anybody holding office, for anybody that aspires to hold office, this is verboten. But what I want to tell you is that among the public, this is absolutely overwhelming. This is the biggest head-in-the-sand issue in this country today. In New Mexico, I am being approached rapid fire with people saying "right on" with your statements regarding the war on drugs. And I want to suggest to you that the public reaction is 97 to 3 positive.

What I believe I have discovered is that the war on drugs is thousands of miles long, but it's only about a quarter-inch deep. I appreciate the work that has already been done by all of you. I've now been given the stage, and I'm trying to make the most of it. I'm trying to communicate what I believe in: I believe that drugs are bad, but I believe that we need to stop arresting and locking up the entire country.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 1999 edition of Cato Policy Report.

Gov. Gary Johnson

Gary Earl Johnson is an American businessman and member of the Libertarian Party.