A lonely stand for drug legalization; Maverick: New Mexico's Republican governor has been assailed for advocating the decriminalization of narcotics. He could compare notes with Kurt Schmoke.


ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.-- Gary Johnson used marijuana and cocaine in his younger days. Now Johnson, 46, shuns illegal drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, Coca-Cola -- even candy bars.

Not that unusual a transformation for a man who came of age in 1960s America.

Today, he advocates decriminalizing marijuana, cocaine and heroin, arguing that the government should spend its financial resources elsewhere.

Again, not that unusual a stance -- unless you know that Johnson is a Republican, the governor of New Mexico and the highest-ranking elected official in the United States to advocate legalization.

In taking his controversial positions, he has moved the debate over national drug policy -- a debate that largely has been confined to academics and think tanks -- into the political arena.

Johnson said he intends to use his position to advance the issue nationally.

He and other advocates want the federal government to relinquish the authority to regulate drugs, much as it did with alcohol in the 1920s during the waning days of Prohibition, and allow state and local governments to decide the issue for themselves.

If they opt for legalization, states and local governments would regulate, distribute and tax the drugs. The theory is that this would ensure the safety of the drugs, reduce crime associated with the black market and provide more revenues.

Johnson has been harshly criticized by the Republican Party, members of his anti-drug task force, law enforcement authorities from across New Mexico, the lieutenant governor and federal drug policy director Barry McCaffrey.

"Drugs aren't dangerous because they are illegal; they are illegal because they are dangerous," McCaffrey said.

The governor, however, argues that now is the time for a new approach. Recent polls show that 13.6 million people use drugs, half the number in 1979.

"You understand how futile what we're doing is. At what point do you reach critical mass and say, 'Enough is enough?'" said Johnson.

"By legalizing drugs, we could reduce the amount of drug abuse we have in this country," he added. "Law enforcement would be able to enforce laws we want them to but can't because half their focus is on drugs."

Before Johnson's announcement, the most prominent supporters of decriminalizing drugs included conservative commentator William F. Buckley and Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

Writing in a 1996 National Review article, Schmoke said that drug prohibition "reduces the number of police officers available to investigate violent crime; fosters adulterated, even poisonous, drugs, and contributes significantly to the transmission of HIV." But under a system of legalized drugs, he wrote, the government would "control the price, distribution and purity of addictive substances -- which it already does with prescription drugs. This would take most of the profit out of drug trafficking, and it is profits that drive the crime."

But Schmoke was a mayor. Johnson is a governor, and his stance has galvanized both supporters and critics.

Those who support him argue that New Mexico spends too much money on building prisons and courts and too little money on constructing schools and hiring new teachers. He also has struck a chord nationally with the Libertarian Party, which, despite Johnson's professed disinterest in a higher office, is pressing him to become its presidential candidate next year.

McCaffrey, who asserts that federal drug policy is working, has a different view.

"The governor's actions serve as a terrible model for the rest of the nation," the drug policy director said. "Whether you call it legalization, decriminalization or drug policy reform, the bottom line is that the agenda espoused by people like Governor Johnson would put more drugs into the hands of our children and make drugs more available on our nation's streets."

John Dendahl, chairman of the Republican Party of New Mexico, said that some in the GOP are so angry over Johnson's position that they "would write a resolution absolutely condemning him."

"We are anti-drugs, pro-strict law enforcement and pro-severe penalties," Dendahl said. "I'm asking [Johnson] to leave the drug discussion to others and to restore his focus on New Mexico issues."

Johnson acknowledges that the issue is volatile.

Though he has privately supported the legalization effort since his college days, he said he deliberately waited until his final term to publicly disclose those views. Johnson, who has served two terms, said he will return to the private sector and will not pursue another political office when his term ends in 2003.

"I would like to see this as a political issue," Johnson said. He added: "I've got three years left. I'm going to make the most of that."

He has put some of his controversial ideas to the test in New Mexico, with decidedly mixed results.

The state, along with Hawaii, has the only statewide syringe-exchange programs in the United States. Drug users can turn in old syringes and get new ones. The reasoning is that the use of new syringes will at least minimize the risk of infections from tainted needles.

In the parking lot of a nightclub on Central Avenue in east Albuquerque sat a tan health department minivan, where addicts last week discarded their used syringes and perused a wide selection of drug paraphernalia they could take in return.

A bumper sticker on the back of the van said, "DARE to stop the war on drugs."

After showing the health workers a yellow registration card, a woman in a black shirt dropped her used needles in a hazardous-waste container in the back of the van and collected fresh syringes, clean metal caps to cook her drugs and alcohol swabs. As long as addicts carry the yellow cards, police will not arrest them for carrying drug paraphernalia.

Maureen Rule, the outreach team leader, said she supports legalization of drugs.

"Many people say that by legalizing drugs, you're sending the wrong message that drugs are OK," Rule said. "The only message we want to send out is you don't have to die if you use."

But Lauren Reichelt, who runs treatment programs for substance abusers in northern New Mexico, argues that legalization would only worsen the heroin epidemic there.

The death rate from drug overdose in Rio Arriba County, she said, is quadruple the national average. Nearly 100 people in the rural county of 35,000 have died of heroin and cocaine overdoses during the last four years. The problem is compounded by the fact that Johnson has provided little money for treatment services, she said.

"The governor does not believe in treatment," Reichelt said. "For us, a policy of totally legalizing drugs minus treatment would be disastrous."

Indeed, Johnson, who this year approved a $500,000 allocation for treatment programs after vetoing two similar measures, said he believes that such programs are useless because most addicts sign up merely to avoid jail time.

Experts are watching the results of New Mexico's syringe exchange program carefully. More than 100 syringe exchange programs have been established in cities and counties around the nation, which, according to seven federally funded studies, have significantly reduced the re-use of dirty needles and the spread of HIV and hepatitis.

Some advocates of drug policy reform encourage an even bolder step -- direct government supply of heroin to addicts.

Johnson says the issue needs to be studied, and he suggests that someday heroin might be available to registered addicts in pharmacies, even grocery stores.

Other countries have experimented with such plans.

In 1994, the Swiss government began prescribing heroin to more than 1,000 addicts in a clinical trial. Heroin remains illegal, and the addicts can be arrested if they have drugs on them; in the program, the addicts are required to take their doses under medical supervision in clinics only. Two years ago, the government concluded that crime dropped 60 percent, stable employment among the users rose to 32 percent from 14 percent, and heroin and cocaine use declined substantially.

Experts noted that the government-supplied drugs are purer and stronger than street drugs.

"The differences between pharmaceutical grade heroin [distributed by the government] and street heroin is like the difference between fine wine and rock-gut corn whiskey made in someone's still," said Ethan Nadelmann , director of the Lindesmith Center, a New York-based drug policy institute.

Under government control, Nadelmann added, "addicts reduce their consumption."

V. Dion Haynes wrote this article for the Chicago Tribune, where it first appeared.

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