Thursday, December 16, 2010

Roundhouse Roundup: Johnson Talks About Marijuana Use (But Not About His Contributors)

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican 
December 16, 2010

Before former Gov. Gary Johnson began using marijuana in late 2005 to relieve pain from a broken back and other injuries suffered in a Hawaii paragliding accident, he tried to get by with no pain medication at all.

"I found myself crumpled up on the floor," Johnson said in a telephone conversation Wednesday. "A friend came by and said, 'Holy cow! Do you want me to try to get you some marijuana to help with the pain?' I hadn't even thought of that."

This was a couple of years before the state approved legal use of marijuana for medical purposes under controlled circumstances.

When Johnson first went public with his support for legalizing marijuana about a decade ago, he told reporters and everyone else that he hadn't touched the weed since his college days, mainly because it detracted from his skiing abilities. In recent years, I hadn't even thought of asking if he'd smoked it again.

But a reporter with a conservative publication called The Weekly Standard did. And Johnson's admission made national headlines last week — mainly because Johnson, who has been touring the country talking about his libertarian approach to government, is seeming more and more like a 2012 Republican presidential candidate.

Johnson said the reason he refused to take prescription painkillers was because of a terrible experience with one such drug in January 2001 — the first time he broke his back.

"I think it was Vicodin," he said, referring to a commonly prescribed narcotic. "It was horrible getting off that stuff. I was constipated, I couldn't sleep for days."

Smoking marijuana for his pain, he said, "seemed like a much healthier choice than prescription drugs." He said he smoked it "on and off" for about three years until the pain — which he called a "dull ache that wouldn't go away" — completely subsided.

Marijuana, he said, doesn't directly numb the pain. "It just helps you cope with the pain. It helps you put yourself in a state of mind where the pain doesn't bother you."

In virtually all of his speeches in favor of legalizing marijuana, Johnson always said it shouldn't be legal to drive a car when you're stoned. The ex-governor said Wednesday that he practiced what he preached. "I didn't drive or operate any heavy machinery when I was smoking it," he said.

So, if he does become a candidate: If Johnson does enter the 2012 Republican primaries and his campaign catches on fire, it's not hard to imagine Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee or Sarah Palin playing the Reefer Madness card: "Would you want a president with his finger on the nuclear button after he's been smoking weed?"

Asked about that possibility, Johnson seemed unfazed. "If they did that, I'd just say that I'm one of a million of people who have done it," he said. "I'm not alone in this universe."

Who's paying for his non-campaign: While Johnson was willing to disclose his marijuana use, he said Wednesday he won't be disclosing who has contributed to his organization called Our America: The Gary Johnson Initiative — which has paid for all of Johnson's travel in the past several months. (On Wednesday he was in Phoenix, getting ready to speak at a Bill of Rights dinner.)

"It's a 501-C4," he said, referring to the organization's tax status. "There's no disclosures. That's part of the whole fundraising deal. There's no limits (to the amount people can contribute) and no disclosure."

Johnson said some people who are sympathetic to his ideas have declined to donate to Our America because they don't want to be identified as supporters.

The group has raised about a half-million dollars so far, Johnson said.

While he's correct that such nonprofit groups don't have to disclose, refusal to do so can become a source of criticism down the road. Current Gov. Bill Richardson learned that with his Moving America Forward Foundation. Richardson never has disclosed who contributed to that group, which raised about $1.7 million during Richardson's time in office.