Gary Johnson believes the tensions between police and minorities that led to two high-profile police shootings and the deaths of five Dallas police officers has a root cause: The long-running war on drugs.
The libertarian nominee for president did not directly tie the drug war to the shooting deaths in Minnesota and Louisiana by police or the sniper killings of five officers in Texas this week. But poor relations between police and African-Americans stems from the criminalization of drug use, he said.
“The root is the war on drugs, I believe. Police knocking down doors, shooting first,” Johnson said in an interview Friday in Washington. “If you are (black and) arrested in a drug-related crime, there is four times more likelihood of going to prison than if you are white. And shooting is part of the same phenomenon.”
“That’s the common thread. Shootings are occurring with black people, black people are dying,” he added. “This is an escalation.”
The former Republican governor of New Mexico is pitching a complete rewrite of the nation’s drug policy as part of his underdog run for the presidency alongside his running mate, former Massachusetts GOP Gov. Bill Weld. Johnson wants to legalize marijuana and find other ways to deal with harder drugs than long periods of incarceration.
He said that will soon happen, predicting that California will vote this fall to legalize marijuana and President Barack Obama will remove cannabis from its listing as a Class 1 drug. "I think Obama’s going to do that going out the door," Johnson said.
“The focus on drugs needs to be as a health issue, not a criminal justice issue. It can be illegal but does it need to be criminal? Do you need to go to jail for drugs?” Johnson said. “I do believe that the root of the militarization, knocking on doors, is a drug war phenomenon.”
The laid-back libertarian, dressed in jeans and an open-collared button-down in a hotel dining room, declined to join Republicans in criticizing Obama for pointing to “powerful weapons” this week as a cause of violence between police officers and minorities. But Johnson said the focus on assault rifles is misguided.
“That is a category of rifle that contains 30 million rifles. If you ban those rifles tomorrow and said hand ‘em in," only half of the weapons would actually be turned over, Johnson said. "And we’re going to have a whole new criminal class of people.”
Johnson said that as president he’d be open to proposals designed to keep guns out of the hands of terrorists and the mentally ill. But he said he’d seen no such workable proposals in Congress, despite unsuccessful attempts by both Democrats and Republicans.