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Originally published Thursday, August 2, 2012 at 5:49 PM

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Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson predicts pot will be legal by 2016

Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party candidate for president, predicted Thursday that pot legalization will be approved by voters in Washington and Colorado this fall, helping to spur other states to follow suit.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party nominee for president, predicted Thursday that marijuana will be legal nationwide within the next four years.

Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico, said he thinks that pot legalization will be approved by voters in Washington and Colorado this fall, helping to spur other states to follow suit.

"We are a tipping point here on this issue," Johnson said in an interview during a visit to the Seattle area as part of his longshot campaign.

Johnson, who unsuccessfully pushed for marijuana legalization as governor of New Mexico a decade ago, has admitted to smoking pot as recently as 2008, when he was recovering from a paragliding crash.

He said, "The world will be a better place" when it is legal, because "police will go out and fight real crime, court dockets won't get as filled up, and maybe we can reduce the highest incarceration rate in the world."

Recent polling has offered varying pictures of the prospects of Initiative 502, which would legalize and tax the sale of marijuana in Washington.

An Elway Poll released last week found that 46 percent of registered voters supported the measure, while 44 percent opposed it. But a KING-TV/SurveyUSA poll released days earlier found the measure with 55 percent support versus 32 percent against.

One thing is clear: The initiative has a better chance of passing than Johnson has of becoming president. His campaign has only raised about $1 million — President Obama and his Republican rival Mitt Romney have each raised about $300 million — and he isn't being included in most polling.

But Johnson, who touts himself as the only third-party candidate who will appear on the ballot in all 50 states, is likely to play a role in November by taking away votes from the major candidates.

The Obama campaign in particular is hoping Johnson will siphon off votes from Romney, The Associated Press reported earlier this week. According to The AP, the campaign figures Johnson will appeal to Republican voters, in part because he ran for governor of New Mexico as a Republican and sought the GOP presidential nomination before running as a Libertarian.

Johnson dismissed that logic Thursday, pointing to polling indicating he would disproportionately hurt Romney in some states and Obama in others.

"I hope I get labeled as a spoiler for both," he said. "That would get me more attention."

Johnson first made a name for himself while vetoing 750 bills during his governorship from 1995 to 2003. He is running on a platform of ending the war in Afghanistan, increasing civil liberties, balancing the budget by slashing spending and reforming the tax system by replacing the U.S. tax code with a simple consumption tax.

He said that he could exploit the flaws in the platforms of the other candidates if he was included in the presidential debates in the fall.

"Look, if I'm in the debate against Romney and Obama, they're going to change their tune," he said. "They're going to have to."

It's not likely, however: The Commission on Presidential Debates only invites candidates who have received an average of 15 percent in the polls, and Johnson — when he's included — has only been pulling in a few percentage points.

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.

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