For legalized pot, NM was ready to party in 1999 - Albuquerque Journal

For legalized pot, NM was ready to party in 1999

Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson speaks in 2016. Johnson says he always knew legalization at the state level would be a long journey. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

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SANTA FE – Twenty-three years ago, New Mexico’s governor became the highest-ranking elected official in the United States to call for the legalization of marijuana.

It triggered resignations from a state drug council and his own Cabinet.

In a 1999 news conference, then-Gov. Gary Johnson lamented the lack of support from elected leaders.

“There is absolutely zero political support. None. It’s nonexistent,” he told reporters.

Longtime legislator Mimi Stewart recalled it this way: “I think Johnson just seemed like a weirdo back then to all of us.”

More than two decades later, as New Mexico prepares to begin retail sales of cannabis Friday, Johnson said he always knew legalization at the state level would require a long journey.

But he’s surprised other states – Colorado among them – beat New Mexico so easily to establish their own legal markets for marijuana.

After all, Johnson said, even when politicians wouldn’t support legalization, the constituent letters, faxes and phone calls to the Governor’s Office ran about 95% in favor.

It was more popular with the public than politicians.

“We’re a long way behind where we could have been had we done this sooner,” Johnson said in an interview this week.

Nevertheless, he called New Mexico’s new cannabis law a positive step and said he was pleased to see its passage. The licenses appear to be affordable, he said, but some of the regulations are too burdensome, such as limits on how much marijuana can be grown.

“You can always criticize the fine print,” Johnson said. “Overall, I think it’s very positive.”

New Mexico is set to allow retail sales of cannabis beginning Friday. The landmark legislation was passed in a special session called a year ago by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, making New Mexico the 17th state to legalize marijuana.

Johnson launched his push to revisit anti-drug laws after winning reelection as governor in 1998. He called for a broad reexamination of the war on drugs and the legalization of marijuana and heroin.

In 2004, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson props his feet up in his Taos home as a gift box featuring marijuana leaves sits on a coffee table. Johnson launched the push to revisit anti-drug laws after winning reelection as governor in 1998. He was, at the time, the highest-ranking elected official in the United States calling for the legalization of marijuana. (John Stephenson/Albuquerque Journal)

Johnson appeared at forums on drug policy and shared his message on national TV programs.

At the Roundhouse, it shook up traditional political alliances as Johnson, then a Republican, found some Democratic allies. Members of his own party largely rejected the idea.

“It didn’t go anywhere,” state Sen. Stuart Ingle, a Portales Republican who has served since 1985, said this week.

In a 1999 legislative meeting, Senate Republican Leader L. Skip Vernon said Johnson “has had some bad ideas and this, frankly, is the worst one I’ve seen.”

In an interview Wednesday, state Rep. Miguel P. Garcia, D-Albuquerque, described it as “astonishing” to see Johnson embrace drug legalization in his second term. But pushing for it earlier, he said, would have endangered the governor’s reelection chances.

Garcia said the debate ignited by Johnson helped lay the foundation for more serious consideration years later of a medical cannabis program and other changes to the state’s drug policies.

“It created a different mindset within the Legislature … that it’s totally ridiculous to keep going down this path of incarcerating individuals just because of their substance-use disorder,” said Garcia, a member of the House since 1997.

Stewart, now the Senate president pro tem, joined the state House in 1995, the same year Johnson took office.

Early in his tenure, she said, the governor vetoed legislation she supported, but he seemed to take new interest in her work after he spotted her running a half-marathon. He ran the full marathon.

“He’d lap me,” said Stewart, an Albuquerque Democrat.

After that, she and Johnson worked together to enact legislation creating a population control commission to release prison inmates held for drug offenses, in certain circumstances.

“In his second term, I became a little more tolerant of him and vice versa,” Stewart said.

Then-Mayor Jim Baca of Albuquerque said he caught flack in 1999 for supporting Johnson’s campaign to revisit the war on drugs, especially marijuana.

“I didn’t agree with 99% of the things he did,” Baca said, “but that one I did. It was just commonsense.”

Johnson launched presidential campaigns in 2012 and 2016 as a Libertarian and a U.S. Senate campaign in 2018, long after his tenure as governor. He hasn’t held an elected public office since leaving the Roundhouse in 2002.

He expressed no regret about pushing for drug legalization.

“Embarking on that, for me personally, it was the right thing to do,” Johnson, now 69, said.

Even with legalization spreading state by state, he said, there’s plenty left to be done. Policymakers, he said, should revisit mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and establish safe banking for marijuana businesses.

Johnson, who lives in Taos, said he now dedicates his days to skiing or mountain biking.

He hasn’t used marijuana, he said, “in quite some time.”

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