Gary Johnson, the Republican Governor of New Mexico, is a self-made millionaire and fitness freak. He is also a former marijuana user who strongly believes drugs should be legalized Jan Cienski National Post Jim O'Donnell, The Associated Press Labelled "Puff Daddy Johnson" by one critic, Gary Johnson, 48, the triathlon-running Governor of New Mexico, says drugs are less harmful than alcohol and tobacco and the US$20-billion the United States spent fighting drugs last year would have been better spent on health care and education. SANTA FE, N.M. - The leading advocate of drug legalization in the United States is not some pot- besotted hippie in tie-dyes and Birkenstocks; it is Gary Johnson, the button-down, tax-cutting, gun-loving Republican Governor of New Mexico. "There's a fundamental issue here and that is, is it criminal? Is it criminal to smoke marijuana in the confines of your own home, arguably doing no harm to anyone but yourself?" Mr. Johnson asks. "Well no, that's not criminal in my opinion." The idea of decriminalizing marijuana is gaining wider currency. In Canada, Joe Clark, the Tory leader and former prime minister, is in favour and Anne McLellan, the Minister of Justice, said she is willing to have a debate on the issue. In New Mexico, that debate has been raging for two years, ever since Mr. Johnson went public with an idea that contradicts the positions of the entire political and law-enforcement establishment of the United States: That drugs do not do nearly as much damage as tobacco and alcohol and the smartest solution would be to legalize them. "Half of what we spend on law enforcement, half of what we spend on the courts, half of what we spend on prisons is because of drugs," Mr. Johnson said. "I don't know if there is a bigger issue facing this country." The Governor's idea went over like Cheech and Chong at a black- tie ball. General Barry McCaffrey, the former White House drug czar, labelled him "Puff Daddy Johnson." One of the Governor's own sheriffs called him an idiot. Another suggested he check into a mental institution. His chief law enforcement official quit his Cabinet, as did three members of his anti-drug task force. A cheerleading squad boycotted a gubernatorial appearance. Mr. Johnson's popularity rating lurched downward 19 points from its previous 54%. At first glance, Mr. Johnson, 48, is an unlikely icon for the hemp crowd, relating more to the up-by-your-bootstraps, Horatio Alger life story beloved by his fellow Republicans. He is a self-made millionaire, rising from handyman to owner of a large construction company, Big J Enterprises. He got interested in politics in 1994 and, despite sneers from the party establishment, used his millions to make himself a viable candidate and win the governorship in a strongly Democratic state. In 1998, he was overwhelmingly re-elected, the first consecutive two-term governor in the state's history. He is also a fitness freak. He has run the Iron Man Triathlon in Hawaii three times, the last time finishing the marathon run, 3.8-kilometre swim and 180-kilometre bike ride only two hours behind the winner. He ran 40 kilometres in army boots and military fatigues, carrying a 16-kilogram backpack through the White Sands Missile Range to commemorate the Bataan Death March of the Second World War. Normally he wakes up at 4:45 a.m. and runs the equivalent of about 20 kilometres a day . Every exercise routine is given points -- one point for every mile run, quarter-mile swim, 10 minutes of aerobic weightlifting. His goal is at least 80 points a week and he keeps a log on his gubernatorial desk to chart his progress. For the past six years he is only short 320 points, about four weeks worth. He does not drink or smoke and until January had not eaten sugar in three years. The sugar diet was a friendly bet, every participant putting US$100 per month into the pool with the last to break down getting the cash. In the end, only one state lawmaker, who dropped 22 kilograms, and Mr. Johnson were left before the contest was declared a draw. "I'm a very disciplined human being. You're going to be hard pressed to find someone who is more disciplined," Mr. Johnson said, his wiry frame shifting painfully in his chair from the two fractured vertebra that derailed his exercise routine this spring. But he is also an admitted past drug user. Unlike many politicians who shamefacedly say they may have smoked a joint or two -- Bill Clinton, the former president, famously said he did not inhale; Al Gore, the former vice-president, made his pot-smoking sound dreary and introspective -- Mr. Johnson smoked a lot of marijuana and enjoyed just about every puff. "Having been an underage drinker, what I immediately found was that this is a much better alternative," Mr. Johnson said with an impish grin. "We were not wild and crazy after smoking pot. We just mellowed out and ate a lot of food." He even tried cocaine a couple of times, but stopped because the high was just too good. "What I understood when I did cocaine was why people got hooked on cocaine," he said. "Every time I've done it it's been, 'Whoa, I'm going to get into trouble.' " Eventually, Mr. Johnson decided drugs were a handicap, and he quit. Unlike the Reefer Madness message that comes from many drug warriors, Mr. Johnson had no trouble quitting and noticed no ill-effects from his past drug use. He is also convinced the three-decade-long war on drugs has been a costly failure. Mr. Johnson exploded with laughter when asked to comment on the drug czar's statement that headway is being made on the drug problem. "I love that, that's the most hilarious thing I've heard of in my whole life," he said. "It makes no sense whatsoever. It's baloney, absolute baloney." Last year, the United States spent approximately US$20-billion fighting drugs, up from about US$1-billion in 1979. In 1999, 1.5 million people were arrested on drug charges. About one-quarter of the 2 million people in U.S. prisons are there because of drugs. About 330,000 convicts broke the law to get money to feed their drug habit. And the result? While some numbers show a decline in drug use -- 6.4% of the population used drugs in the last month of 1997 while 14.1% did so in 1979 -- other statistics are much gloomier. In 1975, 55.2% of 12th graders reported having tried drugs, according to the annual Monitoring the Future study. By 1998, that number was down to 54.1%. "How does usage go up any higher?" asked an incredulous Mr. Johnson. Mr. Johnson spent six weeks analyzing the drug issue and settled on the Dutch solution of legalization as the best answer. Dutch drug-use rates are only 60% of the U.S. level and criminality has dropped since marijuana was legalized. The Governor says the best way to tell kids about drugs is to tell them the truth. Although he does not condone drug use, he pulls no punches when addressing high schoolers. Instead of scare stories about brains turning into fried eggs on drugs, he dares to say taking drugs can be fun and even "cool." Kids will quickly sniff out a lie, he says, and then everything else you have to tell them will get tossed aside. As he fights for a different way to tackle drugs, the Governor insists this is an issue that belongs to Republicans. He points to the traditional Republican idea that people should take responsibility for their actions and the party's disdain for the nanny state. Republicans believe smokers have no right to sue tobacco companies because only an idiot would not realize smoking is harmful. They feel guns do not kill people; people kill people. But the party is hooked on the drug war, enthusiastically building prisons and passing ever harsher drug-sentencing laws. "Why [have] Republicans, given all of those other positions that they take, why have they chosen drugs to defend putting people in jail for their own poor decisions?" he asks. After two years, Mr. Johnson's radical ideas for ending the drug war have become a little more muted. The political resistance to changing the strategy of fighting drugs is formidable. Pete Domenici, New Mexico's powerful Republican U.S. Senator, denounces the call to legalize drugs, saying it is backed by New York billionaire George Soros and other powerful forces with ulterior motives and an immoral agenda. "They'd like to take a little state like ours and spend whatever they're spending to get marijuana decriminalized; then they're gone and we're still living here," Mr. Domenici said recently. In early May, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-0 that the medical use of marijuana is not an exception to federal law, which defines the substance as an illegal drug. "Politically, this has become the bogeyman," Mr. Johnson said. "This is something that politicians cannot back away from. They absolutely cannot back away from the status quo, which is hang 'em high." Even Mr. Johnson waited until his second term -- he is constitutionally prohibited from running again -- before broaching the subject. Constrained by political realities, he presented the state legislature with an eight-bill package to reform drug laws that, while radical, stops far short of outright legalization. Despite urging from Mr. Johnson, the legislature passed only four bills, defeating his hopes of decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana. But it did buck the current trend in the United States and made it easier for pharmacies to sell syringes to drug addicts. Even though he has made little headway, Mr. Johnson is determined to get something done on an issue he calls "the big fish," that, if successful, would free up police officers to concentrate on other types of crime, release billions for health care and education spending and allow millions of drug convicts to go home. Succeed or fail, the Governor plans to be far from New Mexico after his term ends next year. He wants to climb Everest and after that, he says he has no political plans. But his pro-legalization stance has made him a national celebrity. The Libertarian Party asked him to be its presidential candidate last year. He refused. His popularity rating has edged back above 50%. A recent opinion poll found 62% of New Mexicans feel people should not be arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Letters to the Governor's office have been running 20:1 in favour of his legalization stand. With numbers like that, the Just Say No crowd may hear more from Mr. Johnson in the next few years. "No politician puts an end to their career," the Governor said with a grin. "The only sure way you know a politician will never run for office again is if they are six feet under."