Gary Johnson, this year’s Libertarian Party candidate for president, spoke at a rally on Tuesday outside the Democratic National Convention. He criticized both President Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney for avoiding one of the nation’s most important political issues. Obama has laughed off or ignored persistent questions about marijuana legalization, while Romney is equally dismissive, calling the issue insignificant.
During his two terms as governor of New Mexico, Johnson established himself as the highest-ranking public official to call for a dramatic shift in the nation’s drug laws. He explains that during his two terms, he applied a cost-benefit analysis to every issue. Regarding costs of the war on drugs, he has cited the United States’ world-record incarceration rate and the fact that approximately half of current criminal justice expenditures deal with drug cases.
On his campaign website, the former governor also refers to the harms of alcohol prohibition and the parallel harms of current drug prohibitions, including the enrichment of organized crime and the associated violence. The site clearly states his support for legalizing marijuana, specifying that the federal government should “end its prohibition mandate” and allow the states to determine their own policies. This is one area where he agrees with former Republican presidential contender and libertarian icon Ron Paul, to whom he has compared himself and whose supporters he may be courting. Although he does not explicitly call for legalization of other drugs, he does refer to drug abuse as a public health issue rather than a criminal justice problem, making reference to the decriminalization which is in effect in Portugal and presenting it as a model for the U.S. to consider.
Johnson’s support in national polling remains quite low, and his name has often been omitted from the polls. It is likely that he will be excluded from the presidential debates, which does not bode will for his chances of ultimately winning the presidency. However, Johnson is the most prominent advocate of drug policy reform in the race and is expected to be on the ballot in all 50 states. Support of even 5% puts him at the top of the pack of third parties, as it dwarfs the best-ever presidential results for both the Libertarian Party itself and the Green Party, whose candidate Ralph Nader won 2.7% in the 2000 elections. His position in the race not only makes him a significant figure in the drug policy reform movement, but should work to raise public awareness of the issue and to improve the prospects for real reform.