Former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson says the first time he tried marijuana he knew "the government lied" about its dangers and the need to commit resources to keep it illegal.
These days, Johnson says he doesn't smoke pot and never drinks. And his public policy group, Our America - The Gary Johnson Initiative - advocates drug abstinence.
Yet since his days as New Mexico governor, elected in 1994 and again in '98, Johnson has been a fierce advocate for legalization of marijuana and alternatives to the drug war.
Now he is in California, supporting the state's November ballot initiative to legalize marijuana for recreational use, allow small residential cultivation and permit local governments to tax and regulate pot sales.
"I'm here to promote it in any way I can," he said in an interview outside the Capitol in Sacramento. "I liken it to the domino effect. This might be what brings rational drug policy to the rest of the country."
The former Republican governor met with state Assembly and Senate Republicans on Tuesday and Wednesday and scheduled interviews with reporters before heading off to San Francisco to tout the California pot measure in the Bay Area.
As New Mexico governor, Johnson said he was "the highest profile politician in the United States...espousing legalization of marijuana."
"That's the good news," he says. The bad? He laments that other political figures - particularly those still seeking elective office - are loathe to join him in advocating legal weed.
"No politicians touch this," Johnson said.
His "Our America" policy group advocates national legalization and taxation of marijuana.
Though he doesn't support legalization of other drugs, Johnson argues that misguided marijuana policy is at the heart of a costly and harmful war on drugs.
"Ninety percent of the drug problem is prohibition-related, not use-related," said Johnson, whose organization estimates national drug enforcement costs at $70 billion, including law enforcement, courts and prisons.
"And to what end?" he asks.
Johnson said the California initiative is a test of changing public attitudes on marijuana. Ultimately, he said, change will be inspired by voters - not elected officials.
"I think this is a tipping point that happens without the politicians," he said.
Johnson has been getting significant national attention for his marijuana legalization push.
See him articulate his views (below) during his appearance on The Colbert Report, after host Stephen Colbert asks him, "Are you high right now?"
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