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Gary Johnson and Ron Paul -- Two GOP Drug War Critics Seek Presidency

Maybe there will finally be a serious discussion of drug policy in the 2012 campaign, even if only in the primaries.
 
 
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Two prominent Republican anti-prohibitionists are seeking the nod to head the party's ticket in the 2012 presidential election. Last week, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson formally threw his hat in the ring with a tweet and a speech in New Hampshire, and this week, Rep. Ron Paul (TX) announced he was forming an exploratory committee for the 2012 campaign, with a final decision to come next month.

Both men are libertarian-leaning, anti-interventionist, fiscal conservatives who will compete to gain the support of some of the same elements of the Republican base. Both have long records of speaking out against drug prohibition. They are up against a Republican field that has so far thrown up few strong front runners, and early primary victories could catapult them to the front of the field.

Johnson was in typical form last week, telling ABC News what he was all about. "I support gay unions. I think the government ought to get out of the marriage business. And then for me as governor of New Mexico, everything was a cost-benefit analysis. There weren't any sacred cows -- everything was a cost-benefit analysis. What are we spending money on and what are we getting for the money that we're spending? So in that sense, the drug war is absolutely a failure."

Drug reform as an issue is prominently displayed on Johnson's campaign home page, and his drug reform page is worth noting. "Despite our best efforts at enforcement, education and interdiction, people continue to use and abuse illegal drugs," the page says. "The parallels between drug policy today and Prohibition in the 1920's are obvious, as are the lessons our nation learned. Prohibition was repealed because it made matters worse. Today, no one is trying to sell our kids bathtub gin in the schoolyard and micro-breweries aren't protecting their turf with machine guns. It's time to apply that thinking to marijuana. By making it a legal, regulated product, availability can be restricted, under-age use curtailed, enforcement/court/incarceration costs reduced, and the profit removed from a massive underground and criminal economy.

"By managing marijuana like alcohol and tobacco -- regulating, taxing and enforcing its lawful use -- America will be better off," the issue page continues. "The billions saved on marijuana interdiction, along with the billions captured as legal revenue, can be redirected against the individuals committing real crimes against society. Harder drugs should not be legalized, but their use should be dealt with as a health issue -- not a criminal justice issue."

The issues page uses large-font type to ensure that readers understand that he wants to "make marijuana legal" and embraces a harm reduction approach to harder drugs.

Johnson has embraced drug reform since at least 1999, after cruising to victory to serve a second term as New Mexico governor in 1998. That stance made him one of the earliest high ranking officials in the US to call for pot legalization and a harm reduction approach to other drugs. He retired from New Mexico politics after being term-limited out of office after his second term.

Johnson, who is a relative unknown among the Republican field, is counting on a strong showing in New Hampshire, home of the nation's first primary, to boost his candidacy. "I have to do, and want to do, really well in New Hampshire," he said on the steps of the statehouse in Concord as he announced his candidacy. "So I'm going to spend a lot of time in New Hampshire, where you can go from obscurity to prominence overnight with a good showing."

Veteran Texas congressman Ron Paul, for his part, announced Tuesday that he has formed a presidential exploratory committee for the 2012 nomination. If he runs, that would mark his third presidential campaign. He ran as a Libertarian in 1988 and as a Republican in 2008. In the latter campaign, he generated a core of devoted followers, but dropped out in June after averaging less than 10% of the vote in early primaries.

But Paul supporters said their candidate could do better this year. They cited the name recognition from his 2008 run and the rise of the Tea Party, where Paul's fiscally conservative and constitutionalist views, if not always his views toward drug and foreign policy, should find a warm welcome.

Paul has long been a critic of the war on drugs, has supported bills in Congress to decriminalize marijuana and hemp, and takes a states' rights approach to drug policy. He is also strongly anti-interventionist, but unlike many libertarians, opposes abortion.

While both men are long-shots in the Republican nomination process, the state of the field leaves the door open to one or both of them. A recent CBS News/New York Times poll found that 56% of Republicans were not enthusiastic about any of a long list of declared and potential candidates. (Johnson and Paul weren't listed in that poll).

And then there were two anti-prohibitionist presidential candidates -- in the Republican Party, no less. Maybe there will finally be a serious discussion of drug policy in the 2012 campaign, even if only in the primaries.

 
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