Up in smoke: How Gary Johnson and a Colorado marijuana initiative could cost Obama the election

Walter Shapiro
Yahoo News

BOULDER, Colorado—Dressed in a sports jacket, a faded peace-symbol T-shirt and blue jeans, the Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson was playing to a rapturous overflow crowd at the University of Colorado. The man who could be the Ralph Nader of 2012 beguiled his largely male, mostly student audience with his views on the second-biggest issue on the Colorado ballot this year: Amendment 64, which would legalize marijuana.

“I’m the only candidate running for president of the United States who wants to end the drug war now,” Johnson, a former Republican governor of New Mexico, said Monday night to cheers. “Colorado has the opportunity to change worldwide drug policy by voting for Issue 64.”

Johnson, who first endorsed marijuana legalization in 1999, is a Ron Paul libertarian with a deep toke of social permissiveness. Even though he was an asterisk in the 2012 Republican presidential primaries, Johnson and his pro-pot stance could be a surprise factor in a swing state where all the polls point to a tie. As Jeff Orrok, the Colorado chairman of the Libertarian Party, puts it, “We’re getting a fair amount of synergy around Amendment 64.”

Like Nader in Florida’s hanging-chad 2000 election, Johnson will draw only a small percentage of the presidential vote in Colorado. A new CNN/ORC poll gives Johnson 4 percent of the vote in Colorado. But many other Obama-vs-Romney poll questionnaires in Colorado do not mention Johnson by name, instead lumping him with other minor-party candidates (including comedian Roseanne Barr) under a vague designation called “Other.”

But it’s not blowing smoke to believe that Johnson could corral enough support from tepidly pro-Obama younger voters to make an electoral difference in a state as evenly divided as Colorado.

Confronting the curse that haunts all third-party candidates, Johnson stressed to his supporters that they’re not disenfranchising themselves by voting for him. “Wasting your vote is voting for someone you don’t believe in,” Johnson said Monday night as his acolytes demonstrated a libertarian disdain for fire-marshal rules about blocking the aisles in the college auditorium where he spoke.

In an interview backstage after the speech, as fans clamored for autographs, Johnson impatiently waved off any comparisons to the third-party candidacy of Nader, who Democrats blame for costing Al Gore the 2000 election in Florida.“I think that voting one’s conscience is how you change the system,” he said. “If I get a certain number of votes it affects Romney in ways that he…”

Here, Johnson broke off the thought to mention the pressure that his “hero” Ron Paul is already putting on the Republican nominee.  “Romney pays a bit of lip service [to libertarian principles],” Johnson said, “but maybe he goes beyond paying lip service.”

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At moments like this, Johnson’s Republican roots are showing. But in both his speech and the interview, Johnson claimed to have been beguiled by Obama’s rhetoric, even though he voted for the Constitution Party presidential candidate in 2008. “I was very optimistic on gay rights, very optimistic on the war and I was very optimistic on the drug war,” Johnson told me. “Those were three categories that definitely were going to improve under Obama. And they haven’t.”

Johnson is, by no means, a one-issue candidate, and his supporters in Boulder roared when he proclaimed, “I would have vetoed the Patriot Act.” But even if Johnson waffled a little on the immediate legalization of cocaine (“We will not go from A-to-Z overnight”), this is a candidate firmly on the side of the stoners. If Colorado passes Amendment 64, Johnson said in his stump speech, pumping for the allure of reefer-madness Colorado vacations, “it will send a message when everyone in the country wants to go Denver for the weekend to chill out.” 

Polls suggest that Amendment 64 is likely to pass. Introducing Johnson in Boulder on Monday night, Denver shock jock Uncle Nasty (a.k.a. Gregg Stone) said, “I truly believe 64 will pass and we’ll go to war with the feds.”

While war is undoubtedly an exaggeration, the Obama administration (and, needless to say, a potential Romney presidency) has shown scant sympathy for the medical marijuana programs that are legal in some form in Colorado and 16 other states.

Coupled with a deadlocked presidential race in Colorado, Amendment 64 adds a dazed and confused element to Campaign 2012. “What Gary Johnson does is make the winning margin for president in Colorado 48.5 percent,” said Democratic political consultant Rick Ridder, who has advised the Amendment 64 campaign. “It’s unclear at this point who Johnson takes votes from. Traditionally, the Libertarian candidate draws from Republicans. But this year, it’s uncertain because of 64.”

It seems ludicrous that a state referendum on marijuana could influence who gets the codes to America’s nuclear weapons next Jan. 20. But it once seemed unfathomable that Jewish voters in Florida’s Palm Beach County mistakenly punching Pat Buchanan’s name could, in effect, elect George W. Bush president in 2000. That’s the hallucinogenic wonder of American politics—anything can happen, and all too frequently does.

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