When backers of the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act turned in 12,000-plus signatures Friday to cure a 2,407 signature shortfall toward qualifying for the November ballot, a special guest was on hand: Gary Johnson, former governor of New Mexico.
Johnson thinks the Regulate measure could be the beginning of the end of pot prohibition in the U.S. and across the planet.
Johnson was elected governor as a Republican, but "I've quit the party," he says. He's now a presidential candidate for the Libertarian ticket. But he made time in his schedule to support the Regulate act, which he sees as being of potentially historic significance.
"Colorado has the opportunity to change drug policy worldwide," he says. "I really think this is the domino that brings an end to marijuana prohibition."
A photo from the July 2011 press conference to announce the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act.
How so? "U.S. drug policy rules the world -- and I think there's a corollary between alcohol prohibition and marijuana prohibition. It's my understanding that one of the things that helped bring alcohol prohibition to an end was New York saying, 'We're not going to enforce federal prohibition laws anymore. Federal government, if you want to do that, go ahead. But we're not going to.' And the federal government didn't have the resources to begin to do that, and that really helped end alcohol prohibition."
Granted, the effect was far from immediate. New York governor Alfred E. Smith signed this measure in 1923, but the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which formally nixed prohibition, wasn't approved until late 1933 -- a full decade later. Still, New York's action was a major marker on the road to repeal, and Johnson thinks the Regulate act could play the same role. In his words, "This could be a real game-changer worldwide."
Johnson stops short of guaranteeing victory for the initiative, which still must be officially approved for the ballot by the Colorado Secretary of State's office. But he sees momentum moving in its direction.
"It's inevitable," he maintains. "When I came out in support of legalizing marijuana in 1999, 35 percent of Americans supported legalizing it -- maybe even less. Then, three months ago, Gallup did a poll that showed 50 percent of Americans now support legalizing marijuana. And this is the first time it's been a fifty-fifty debate."
In Johnson's opinion, "Colorado has taken the lead on this issue," not just with Amendment 20, which legalized medical marijuana in the state circa 2000, but also "when Denver voted to decriminalize marijuana on a campaign of marijuana being safer than alcohol. So people are moving forward. It's just the politicians that are holding it back.
"Somebody asked me the other day, 'Why isn't marijuana legal when you've got 50 percent of Americans supporting it?' And the answer is, 0 percent of politicians support it. Clearly, some politicians do support legalization, but so few of them that statistically it doesn't even make up 1 percent. Can you think of any other area of public policy where 50 percent of people want a change and no politicians support it? And that goes for Democrats and Republicans, too. Libertarians have spoken up for this throughout the existence of the party, but they haven't gotten enough people elected to office...."
Not that passing the act will be easy. He admits to being "disheartened" by the Obama administration's toughening stance toward medical marijuana in Colorado, exemplified by U.S. Attorney John Walsh's seizure-threat letter to 23 dispensaries near schools, "especially given his promise during the campaign that he wouldn't spend federal dollars on medical marijuana facilities that had been voted in by citizens of a state," Johnson says. "This is a 180 degree turn on that promise."
Moreover, he expects that as the election grows nearer, opponents will "start snarling about marijuana and the idea that it's a gateway drug and more kids are going to use it, and it's all about the children. They're going to come at this issue with both barrels, rehashing all of the fears we've heard our entire lives -- none of which have come to pass."
What's the best way to counter such attacks? "This is an issue that does really, really well when people talk about it," he allows. "So we've got to get people talking about it who've never talked about it before. And we've got to get people opposed to it to talk about it, too, because when they do, the issue advances. I just think 2.3 million people behind bars in this country, with the majority category being drug-related, is an incredible waste of money. And worse yet, our drug laws are making felons out of what would otherwise be tax-paying, law-abiding citizens.
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"If it doesn't pass this go-round, it's going to pass somewhere, whether it's in California or Oregon or wherever. But I just think Coloradans are enlightened on this topic. Somebody has to start this, and Colorado is lined up to cast that first vote -- to be that first dissenter."
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More from our Marijuana archive: "Marijuana activists form Patient Voter Project, blast Obama's MMJ policies."