TAOS, New Mexico — Gary Johnson has always cut a distinctive political profile.
After growing up in Albuquerque, he built a successful construction business while nurturing his hobby as an endurance athlete.
In 1994, at age 41, he entered politics by running for governor of New Mexico as a Republican. He rode his party's national tide — that was the year Republicans captured both houses of Congress — to victory and governed as a strict fiscal conservative.
Now, turned off by the GOP's social conservatism and truculent immigration stance, he seeks the presidency as the Libertarian Party nominee with an idiosyncratic agenda. He favors smaller government in the social as well as economic realm, including legalization of marijuana. His running mate, William Weld, who served as governor of Massachusetts in the 1990s, is also a former Republican.
Johnson discussed his campaign with me over huevos rancheros in a restaurant near his home in this scenic city. What follows is a condensed, edited transcript of our conversation.
HARWOOD: Tell me about the effect that your paragliding accident had on your life.
JOHNSON: In 2005, I had a really serious paragliding accident. I lost an inch and a half in height on that accident from the fracture in my back. And it took me three years to fully recover — although six months after the accident, I did bicycle from Santa Fe to Napa Valley.
HARWOOD: Now, in the recovery, you were experiencing pain, which you treated with marijuana.
JOHNSON: It was really painful and I have an aversion to painkillers. I'm laying on the floor and someone comes by and they said, "You know, you want me to get you some marijuana for this?" And I thought, "Yes, I do. Please." And I think that it absolutely helped me through this period that was really, really difficult.
HARWOOD: You became the chief executive of a cannabis company. Is, in any way, the run that you're making this time about building your profile for that purpose — for business purposes?
JOHNSON: No. Not in any way. The fact that I got to be the CEO of a publicly traded company in the marijuana space, that was something that was completely unexpected. But very quickly, marijuana products medicinally compete with legal prescription drugs that statistically kill 100,000 people a year. There's not been one documented death due to marijuana.
Then on the recreational side, I've always maintained that legalizing marijuana will lead to less overall substance abuse because people will find it as such a safer alternative than everything else that's out there, starting with alcohol.
The president of the United States, hiring the surgeon general, can de-schedule marijuana as a class one narcotic. And that would open up the research and the development.
HARWOOD: And you would want to do that?
JOHNSON: I would want to do that. Yes.
HARWOOD: How many miles did you ride on your bike to get here today?
JOHNSON: Well, it was about 14, but it's all uphill. All uphill. It'll be a much nicer ride going back down.
HARWOOD: Now, given your passion for athletics, I'm surprised you're running for president of the United States.
JOHNSON: If I'm not elected, I will probably ski somewhere in the vicinity of 120 days next season.