HOME / Law & Politics / Road to the White House / The Adventurous Life of Gary Johnson

The Adventurous Life of Gary Johnson

gary johnson

The two-time Libertarian party presidential candidate, Gary Johnson, was having a good run until he flunked a few media quizzes.

“I know you have some questions about marijuana, so let’s start,” said New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson in 1999. He was on the stage of Warehouse21, a local community center in Santa Fe, and I was moderating the town hall discussion as a host on KSFR, Santa Fe’s public radio station.

This followed right on the heels of Johnson calling for marijuana legalization on 60 Minutes. It was a truly courageous position for a sitting governor, especially a Republican, to take. The move instantly made international headlines.

The first questions from the audience that night were personal. Had he ever used pot?

“Yes,” Gov. Johnson candidly replied.

Quick follow-ups: How much? How often? How recently?

Unflinchingly, he answered every query from a small group of teenagers and parents for 90 minutes.

“Smoking pot isn’t going to kill you,” Johnson explained. “Alcohol is probably a lot more dangerous. Don’t drink. Don’t smoke tobacco. But statistically speaking, you are probably going to try pot, so let’s be honest about it.” Johnson didn’t just talk about marijuana; he also touched on “harm reduction” and ending all forms of drug prohibition. I’d never seen anything quite like it. He offered candor without the usual guile. Thanks to the 60 Minutes interview, Johnson had become a voice in national politics.

Western Roots

North Dakota-born Gary Earl Johnson was never part of the GOP establishment. Before getting into local politics he spent years running a successful construction company (Big J Enterprises) in Albuquerque, earning respect and also plenty of money.

He often tells this story of his first foray into the system: “I went to the Republican headquarters, and said that I was going to announce my candidacy for governor. They told me that, hey, we like you, we like what you’re saying, but you need to know that you will never get elected. It’s not possible.”

The outsider was undeterred. Johnson ponied up $500,000 of his own money and set out to win the 1994 race for governor of New Mexico. Johnson not only beat his Republican primary competitors, but also Democrats and Hispanics, to stay in office for two terms. In the 1990s, he was winning over Hispanic voters to the GOP before it was a key talking point for the party.

In 2000, Johnson had a moment of leadership to showcase his “presidential” qualities when a massive forest fire swept toward Los Alamos National Laboratory, reaching the perimeter; the inferno threatened to spread dangerous radiation and destroy the nation’s premier nuclear research facility. Johnson held daily briefings and his office coordinated federal, state and county resources to protect the lab and surrounding properties.

When it came to state legislation, Johnson used the veto pen often, which led to bitter disputes with members of both parties. Strong hints of Libertarian views were expressed in many of Johnson’s public statements as governor, like this speech in 2000:

“What is the United States? It’s life, it’s liberty, it’s the pursuit of happiness. I believe that government has a role in ensuring life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Government has a role to make sure that there’s a level playing field so that everybody has access to that American dream.

“And what is it that we’re all after in life? Happiness. Fundamental to happiness is freedom, the ability to choose, the ability to make decisions, the ability to be whatever it is that you think that you might be able to be.”

At the end of his two terms as governor, in 2002, the final assessment of Gary Johnson by fellow New Mexico Republicans was warm. He’d shrunk the state government and balanced the budget, and had generally been a conservative thorn in the side of local Democrats.

In 2005, Johnson announced that he and his wife of 28 years, Dee, were getting a divorce; they’d been college sweethearts and built the construction business together. That same year he broke multiple bones, including his 12th vertebrae—his second spinal fracture—in a paragliding accident. It took him several years to recover from his injuries, and Johnson has said that it was during this period when he started using cannabis regularly to deal with pain.

By 2009, Johnson began to entertain thoughts about reentering the political arena. Two years later, he decided to run for the Republican presidential nomination. It was a crowded field that included former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (the eventual nominee), Congressman Ron Paul and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Johnson didn’t get very far with his bid, but his growing network of cannabis reform enthusiasts helped him open a new door.

Smoke and Mirrors

Flashback to April 19, 2001, and National NORML’s annual conference in Washington, D.C. The event scored three big headline speakers: Congressman Barney Frank, San Francisco District Attorney Terrence Hallinan and New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson. “

gary johnsonMost people don’t want to admit it, but, for the most part, people that smoke marijuana are responsible users of marijuana,” Johnson told the enthusiastic crowd. “They choose when and where to smoke marijuana. They’re not doing any harm to anyone else.”

The former governor also talked about opiate addiction, prescription pain-killer abuse and how the ultimate failure of drug prohibition was seen in every overdose death. It was a prophetic assessment of the addiction crisis happening today.

Johnson went to some of the social events, shoulder-to-shoulder with attendees puffing on roof decks or in rooms thick with smoke. I never saw him take a toke. Nine years later, in Portland, Ore., I snapped a photo of Johnson just as the NORML Board of Directors happened to light a particularly gigantic joint. He wasn’t shy, but again didn’t smoke in public.

Johnson is an absolute health nut, with a simple philosophy: “I dedicate myself to being as physically fit as I can possibly be every single day of my life.” He’s competed in triathlons and has climbed some of the world’s highest mountains, including Everest in 2003. Johnson also loves to ski.

That’s the sport that sparked an important friendship with cannabis activist and entrepreneur Steve Kubby, who likes to carve up the powder at Lake Tahoe. Kubby mounted Libertarian Party runs for governor of California, in 1998, vice president, in 2000, and president, in 2008.

United by cannabis and Kubby, Johnson and California Superior Court Judge Jim Gray were chosen to be the Libertarian presidential ticket in 2012. They received almost 1.3 million votes and placed third nationwide. It was one of the best results ever for the party. In 2014, Kubby named Johnson the CEO of his new business, Cannabis Sativa Inc., a publicly traded company (OTC-QB: CBDS) that has yet to market any products (a CBD-infused water product is under development).

“I don’t know if I’m the Bill Gates of marijuana, but we might be the Microsoft of marijuana,” Johnson gloated at the time. “The whole country is going to legalize marijuana in 10 years, and so goes the world.”

Johnson stepped down from his position when he accepted the 2016 Libertarian Party presidential nomination.

Gary Johnson’s Scary “Aleppo Moments”

Gary Johnson holds a significant piece of voter real estate in the 2016 election, which is populated by disenfranchised Republican candidates and skittish, moderate Democrats.

Republican nominee Donald Trump’s unorthodox campaign has reset the chessboard. But just when all of the pieces were perfectly aligned for Johnson, just as momentum was shifting in his favor, he fell victim to the dreaded gaffe.

During an interview on MSNBC on Sept. 8, Johnson was caught off-guard when asked about Aleppo, the nearly decimated Syrian city. Johnson drew a blank and then responded, in all honesty, “What is Aleppo?” It took but a moment for the hosts to explain. But the damage was done; the resulting press and social media storm was swift and punishing.

Then Johnson did it again a few weeks later. Asked about the bombings in New Jersey and New York on Sept. 17, he asserted, “I’m just glad nobody got hurt.” Actually, the New York bomb injured 30 people.

His third gaffe in the month, on Sept. 29, was a doozy. Asked by Chris Matthews on MSNBC to name a foreign leader he respected, Johnson drew a blank (he described it as a “brain freeze”), and even joked, “I’m having an Aleppo moment.

This further ratcheted up the backlash against Gary Johnson, who already was facing voter discontent over his stances on gun control (he’s against it), education (he calls for eliminating the Department of Education) and taxes (he wants to replace income tax with a consumption tax). Johnson’s unwillingness to tone down his message or bite his tongue is exactly how he became Mr. Third Party.

But one thing had changed: Once he hit the campaign trail, Johnson declared that he was completely sober. In an interview with USA Today in June, he said, “I haven’t had a drink of alcohol in 29 years because of rock climbing and the notion of being the best that you can be, and in that same vein I’ve stopped using marijuana of any kind.”

Johnson’s position on legalization remains unchanged. If he were to win, he’d likely become the first president to end a long day of work at the Oval Office with cannabis instead of alcohol. But he’s blown a great opportunity to place the marijuana issue front and center during the campaign, even as interviewers have pressed him on this point and noted that President Obama is well known for his appreciation of beer.

Libertarianism: The Republican Alternative

Gary Johnson deserves serious consideration by all cannabis consumers. He’s advanced the national discussion, has strong ties with the reform movement and would definitely place legalization as a top priority.

Even though low polling (he’s been hovering at around 8%) has kept Johnson out of the presidential debates, much of the press continues to treat him as a serious contender, despite his gaffes. There have been occasional spikes in opinion polls, and he maintains especially strong support among active-duty military.

Still, those intending to vote for Hillary Clinton or Green Party candidate Jill Stein are not likely to gravitate toward Gary Johnson. With underestimated political savvy, his campaign remains focused on the Republican base, because he can earn those supporters. Johnson is the clear, honest solution for GOP voters— and many others—in 2016.

If you enjoyed this Freedom Leaf article, subscribe to the magazine today!

BACK TO NEWS