The International Drug Policy Reform Conference in downtown Los Angeles might not seem like a sensible campaign stop for a Republican presidential hopeful. There was reggae music blasting, little lapel pins shaped like marijuana leaves, and a speech by California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the uber-liberal former mayor of San Francisco who is famous for granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
But on Thursday, Gary Johnson stood there before an audience of drug decriminalization activists, drawing cheers for his promise that if he wins the Republican nomination and is elected president, he will issue a full pardon for anyone serving prison time for a non-violent marijuana crime.
What Johnson’s shoe-string presidential campaign lacks in resources and media attention—which is a lot -- it has made up for in quirkiness. Consider last month, when the former New Mexico governor showed up to talk economics with protesters at Occupy Wall Street. Or his announcement that he had forgone campaigning in Iowa in order to focus on New Hampshire, where he hopes to make a good showing in the January primary – and surprise those who have dismissed him as a long-shot.
An advocate of small-government and tax reform that would tax consumption, instead of income, Johnson’s libertarian leanings have drawn comparisons to Ron Paul, whom he endorsed for president in 2008.
But he is best-known nationally for his stance on marijuana.
Johnson has been calling for the legalization of the drug since 1999, during his second term as governor. He says he smoked marijuana recreationally when he was younger, and used it more recently to help with the pain after a paragliding accident in 2005. Wherever he goes, Johnson says, people point and say: “That’s the marijuana guy.”
But he says he’s OK with that, since many Americans support looser drug policies. In a recent magazine interview, Johnson said marijuana smokers may be “the largest untapped voting bloc in the country.”
On Thursday, Johnson told the crowd about a Gallup poll last month that found that 50% of Americans favor legalizing marijuana. “Fifty percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana, “ he said. “But zero percent of the universe of politicians support this.” He assailed his Republican rivals, whom he said have overlooked the effect of the so-called war on drugs on the U.S.-Mexico border.
“They all talk about border violence and adding guns to the equation instead of looking at the root of the problem, which is prohibition,” he said.
With the exception of Paul, who believes states should decide whether to outlaw marijuana use, Johnson’s stance on the drug is in stark contrast to most of his Republican rivals. Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, has said that he would not support the decriminalization of marijuana, even for medicinal purposes.
And Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, has sought to expand prosecution of drug-related offenses. In 1996, Gingrich sponsored a bill called the “Drug Importer Death Penalty Act,” which called for life in prison or even the death sentence for those convicted of trafficking large amounts of drugs.