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
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.
"This issue is going
a tipping point," says
New Mexico Gov.
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
"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