Gary Johnson and the End of Marijuana As a Fringe Issue


Advocates for legalization or decriminalization can no longer be dismissed.

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Nominated for a Supreme Court seat in 1987, Douglas H. Ginsburg withdrew from consideration when it was revealed that he'd tried marijuana decades earlier as a student. Five years later, America elected Bill Clinton to the presidency despite his admission that he tried marijuana. The taboo against the drug was still powerful enough that he hedged his answer by claiming that he never inhaled. It was the last time we're likely to hear an excuse so absurd, for everything started changing very quickly after that. Presidential candidates began candidly admitting marijuana use. Sixteen states enacted laws legalizing marijuana for medical use, starting with California in 1996. An additional 12 states are now considering similar legislation. And Obama took office having said that inhaling was the whole point when he was a young marijuana user, and promising that Department of Justice resources wouldn't be used to thwart state cannabis laws.

Of course, President Obama has governed as an unreformed drug warrior, even breaking his promise about federal behavior toward states where medical marijuana is legal. Early in his presidency, he also treated questions about marijuana policy as if the subject was somehow a joke. It's a dodge that doesn't work anymore. Jann Wenner asked him about the issue in Rolling Stone. Reform advocates immediately seized on the misdirection in his answer. Jimmy Kimmel raised the subject again at the White House Correspondents Dinner Saturday, polling the room to see how many people had used the drug and stating in a moment of seriousness, "Mr. President, I hope you don't think I'm out of line here but marijuana is something that real people care about."

The new reality: 70 percent of Americans favor legal medical marijuana, and half think the drug should just be legal. As Gallup notes, "Support for legalizing marijuana is directly and inversely proportional to age, ranging from 62% approval among those 18 to 29 down to 31% among those 65 and older." Eventually, the drug warriors are going to lose, and the country is going to win.   

All of which brings us to Gary Johnson.

Widely expected to emerge from this weekend's Libertarian Party convention as its presidential nominee, the former New Mexico governor has announced that he wants Judge Jim Gray to be his running mate.

Who is Jim Gray?

Among other things, a former prosecutor turned outspoken critic of the War on Drugs. See for yourself:

The kicker: "The best thing I can do for my country is to help us repeal drug prohibition. It's the most patriotic thing that I'm able to do." It's an opportune moment for a libertarian ticket to offer a serious, forceful critique of drug policy, for beyond fortuitous changes in public opinion, there's an incumbent with broken promises and a lackluster record on the issue; and a Republican challenger who is even more of a drug warrior in his avowed positions and such a teetotaller personally that he eschews even caffeine.

Are Johnson and Gray the right team to make this critique? Whatever their shortcomings, they're ideal in this respect: one is an extreme athlete and health nut; the other is a veteran, former prosecutor, and judge who used to be a drug warrior and switched sides based on what he saw in his own courtroom. Can they succeed in injecting the issue into the general election campaign?

Only time will tell.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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