WASHINGTON -- GOP presidential candidate Gary Johnson drew headlines earlier this month when he said he would issue a full presidential pardon for anyone serving a prison sentence for marijuana. He elaborated on that promise in a recent interview with The Huffington Post, adding that it's only a matter of time before marijuana is legalized.
"Clearly it is when, not if," he said of legalizing cannabis. "When 50 percent of the population says to the other 50 percent, 'You belong behind bars for your actions,' that's not good law, that is just not good law at all."
Johnson was referring to a recently released Gallup poll that found a full 50 percent of Americans favor legalizing marijuana, with support for legalization as high as 62 percent among Americans under the age of 30.
The past two decades alone have seen a marked shift in public opinion on the issue, according to the annual poll conducted Oct. 6-9. When respondents were asked in 1970 if the drug should be made legal, only 12 percent agreed. That number rose to 28 percent by the late 1970s, dipped slightly lower in the 1980s, and rose to 36 percent in 2006. Support has spiked in the past five years, with 40 percent of respondents favoring legalization in 2009 before numbers jumped another 10 percent this year.
"I run across this all the time," Johnson told HuffPost. "People in the country have a sense that we're not arresting people for possession of marijuana when the reality is that yes we are!" The federal government spends billions of dollars and arrests more than 800,000 people annually for violating marijuana laws, according to a statement from the nonprofit Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.
"That's how it starts," Johnson said of the arrests, "and then there's the process: you involve law enforcement, you involve the courts, you involve the temporary incarceration process of just getting booked. And I'm sure I don't need to go into length about how discriminatory it all is. You're pulled over, there's marijuana in your car and depending on how you treat the officer that's pulled you over for whatever he's pulled you over for, you're going to go to jail or perhaps you're going to be told to go on your way. It's terribly discriminatory."
The former New Mexico governor has been open with the media about his own experiences smoking pot. After a paragliding accident in 2005, Johnson said that marijuana helped ease the pain.
"I was a pile of bones. I was told to lay on the floor, and to stay laying down on the floor for six weeks, to eat off of the floor. I could get up and go to the bathroom. In that state somebody came by and said, 'Gary? Would marijuana help do you think?' And my response was immediately, 'Yes, I don't know why I didn't think of it, but I think that would help immensely.' And it did."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report last week showing that the number of deaths from overdoses of legal prescription painkillers has more than tripled in the past decade, killing 14,800 people in 2008, up from 4,000 deaths in 1999.
"Whatever ails a person, that they should find relief in marijuana and not Percocet, I would think should be a situation of rejoice," Johnsonn said, referring to the Centers for Disease Control study.
Legalizing marijuana would save roughly $8.7 billion per year in government expenditure on enforcement of prohibition, according to research by Harvard economics professor Jeffrey Miron. He also calculated that the legalization of marijuana would generate approximately $8.7 billion in tax revenue.
Johnson, the former New Mexico governor, has been excluded from recent GOP debates and last month lashed out at the Republican National Committee for what he described as its complicity in the process. While his polling numbers may be low, Johnson said his exclusion from the debates means that constituents will only hear a small segment of the spectrum of Republican opinion.
Marijuana legalization is not the only issue in which he stands apart from GOP candidates. Johnson is the only candidate, other than former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, to acknowledge global warming.
"I accept the fact that the world is getting warmer, that climate change is occurring, and that it's man caused," he said. "That said, I am opposed to restricting carbon emissions. I'm opposed to cap and trade. I believe that the best components of a good environment is good economy."