4/20: Americans Are Ready to Legalize Marijuana, Why Aren't Politicians?

In 1999, as the Republican Governor of New Mexico, I made some waves by becoming the highest ranking elected official in the nation to call for the legalization of marijuana use and to publicly state the obvious: The War on Drugs is an "expensive bust."

At that time, advocating the legalization of marijuana was considered an outrageous – and ill-advised – position to take. Polls clearly showed the public wasn’t yet ready to accept marijuana legalization, and there was absolutely no conventional political wisdom to support my decision. 

So, why did I jump off that political cliff? The answer is simpler than you might think, and it applies even more today than it did more than 20 years ago. As I tried to do with virtually every policy issue the State of New Mexico faced, I looked at our drug laws through the lens of costs versus benefits. And the picture became very clear very quickly.

From the policeman on the street to the courts, prosecutors, and prisons, our legal system was overwhelmed by the task of enforcing a modern-day Prohibition that frankly made no more sense than the one that was repealed almost 80 years ago. Were we safer? Was drug abuse being reduced? Were we benefiting in any measurable way from laws that criminalize personal choices that are certainly no more harmful to society than alcohol use?  The answer to all those questions was a pretty resounding "NO."

So much for the so-called benefits. What about the costs? Depending on how you do the math, as much as half our law enforcement resources are consumed by the War on Drugs.  Perhaps more importantly, more than 10 million Americans are now "criminals" for purposes of employment, credit histories, voting, gun ownership and many other opportunities – all because they got caught using marijuana, a substance more than 100 million of their fellow citizens have used. 

And border violence? More than 50,000, and maybe as many as 70,000, people have died in Mexico and the U.S. due to drug war violence in the past 10 years. Just as alcohol Prohibition propelled the Mafia to outrageous power and profits in the last century, the War on Drugs has done precisely the same for the Cartels, with tragic results. The idea that marijuana might become legal, regulated and lawfully distributed in the U.S. is the Cartels’ worst nightmare.

The good news: Since I committed what many would call political Hara-kiri in 1999, the American people are increasingly recognizing the failure of the War on Drugs, and in particular, the hypocrisy of marijuana prohibition. Gallup and other polling organizations are finding, for the first time, that a majority of Americans are ready to accept marijuana legalization. In November, voters in two states, Washington and Colorado, approved measures to legalize and regulate recreational marijuana use. 

I personally believe the political system cannot for very long withstand this inexorable shift in public opinion. The tipping point is here as far as the people are concerned; now, the politicians must follow.

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Gary Johnson

Gary Earl Johnson is an American politician, businessman, and member of the Libertarian Party. Johnson served as the 29th Governor of New Mexico from 1995 to 2003.

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