Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the home state of congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She is running in New York.
There’s been a lot of talk that if Doug Wardlow gets elected attorney general, a Republican would occupy that office for the first time since 1971.
If Noah M. Johnson, Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party’s social justice-minded candidate wins, he would be the first Democratic-Socialist ever to win that office. (At least, so far as we know.)
Johnson, 29, is not your typical AG candidate. He just graduated from the Mitchell Hamline School of Law in 2017 and was only admitted to the bar this year. Of course, that still gives him a leg up on two Republicans—Bob Lessard and Sharon Anderson—neither of whom is a lawyer.
As a candidate, Johnson is something of a one-trick pony—albeit one with a lot on his mind. His campaign is mostly about raising the profile of pot in hopes of turning reggae singer Peter Tosh into a Gopher State prophet by “legalizing it.”
Johnson, who posed for a photo with a bag of Doritos, is good-humored about his part in the AG race. He doesn’t expect to win, though he insists he’s hopeful: After all, this is the state that sent Johnson’s hero, Paul Wellstone, to the U.S. Senate as a bigger underdog than Buster Douglas.
Yet Johnson’s purpose is serious—by his lights, it’s both legal and moral. The prohibition on marijuana generates injustices, he said, both in sentencing and fines for the poor and communities of color.
“The legal consequences for committing an act should not be harsher than the result of the act itself,” he said. “Since using or selling marijuana doesn’t necessarily harm anyone, I don’t think it is permissible for the state to impose criminal liability.”
Minnesota deserves a chief law enforcement officer with that enlightened view, he said. He is a fan of Keith Ellison’s civil rights advocacy and thinks Ellison likely will win the DFL primary. But when it comes to pot, he is critical of the congressman.
“He is not out far enough on pot, which is a consensus builder,” Johnson said. “If he is this defender of Minnesotans’ rights and liberties—as he often has been in Congress—where does he stand on marijuana? And why doesn’t he talk about it?”
He seems to have a point about the issue’s consensus-building qualities; his candidacy finds pot at a hydroponic high-water mark. Two of the three DFL gubernatorial candidates—Tim Walz and Erin Murphy—essentially hold Johnson’s pro-marijuana position.
Nationally, you can find only four U.S. states these days—Idaho, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas—that maintain outright bans on the drug that the band Black Sabbath once dubbed the “sweet leaf.”
Yet the incumbent attorney general, Lori Swanson—who held a slim lead in the governor’s race in the most recent poll—opposes legalization. That’s another disappointment to Johnson, who otherwise admires her tough-minded approach on consumer protections.
Which is not to say that he’s supporting her run for governor.
“Swanson is not the most objectionable politician in America, but not the least, either,” Johnson said. “Certainly her views on marijuana rights are, I consider, very conservative and even regressive in this time.”
On June 8, Swanson appeared on the TPT-TV public affairs program “Almanac.” There she was asked about pot legalization. She said she will oppose recreational pot “until somebody can show me that people are going to be safe on the highways.”
To Johnson, that’s clutching at the last reed left to pot opponents as the social current sweeps toward legalization.
“It seems to me a last-ditch effort of prohibitionism,” he said. “Ten years ago people would tell you marijuana makes you stupid, it’s addictive, it kills you—all these things that we know are not true. I think the last thing that sounds reasonable to some people is that traffic issue.”
Johnson points to studies that refute the claims, repeated by law enforcement, the media and others, that drivers who smoke pot are significantly dangerous.
A 2015 National Highway Transportation Safety Administration study, for example, showed no increased chance that a driver on pot would be involved in a crash. That compares with a 600 percent increased chance of a drunken driver crashing a car. A later 2016 study in the journal Addiction showed that a pot-intoxicated driver’s chances of an automobile accident are statistically significant, but greatly exaggerated.
Johnson thinks there are some risks—mostly involving inexperienced marijuana users. He urges any first-time pot user not to get behind the wheel of a car. But as a user acclimates to the drug’s effects, he said, the risks diminish.
If anything, he suggests, the mild paranoia that users sometimes report makes them more cautious—ever on the alert for the fuzz, careful to negotiate turns more slowly, mindful of keeping safe distance from that weirdo in the car up ahead.
“From experience and from what I have seen, I just think there is no issue there,” Johnson said.
You might have caught a Freudian slip there. But asked directly if his pro-pot advocacy is an issue of personal liberty, Johnson won’t go there.
“I would say that it doesn’t matter whether I use it, because people use it,” he said. “Lots of people do—lots of productive, peaceful members of society.”
Reminded that voters might have a stake in knowing whether their AG is pothead, Johnson maintained his silence. “It’s for the public good to have the maximum amount of liberty and justice,” he said. “It’s not a personal issue. It’s a public issue.”
Johnson, the son of a newspaper editor mother and teacher father, grew up around the north Minneapolis area. For a while after graduating from the University of Minnesota, he worked as a salesman. But his thoughts drifted toward law, where he felt he could make a bigger impact.
During law school he had externships at the ACLU of Minnesota, where he did intake work, and at the Minnesota Innocence Project, where he corresponded with inmates claiming false convictions. Those were pivotal experiences, he says. Today he is an attorney at Koch & Garvis LLC in Uptown Minneapolis, a firm specializing in criminal and family law.
Johnson says liberty and justice are his twin passions. If he became AG, he would champion the pot issue mostly by discouraging prosecutions and providing law enforcement with oppression-free legal guidance. He also would champion civil rights and consumer protections. Like Ellison, President Donald Trump would be in his cross-hairs.
“If there are states’ attorneys general with suits against Trump,” he said, “I am having a hard time right now thinking of one I wouldn’t support.”
He sees New York’s congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—herself a Democratic-Socialist—as something of an ideal. “She is just a perfect example of exactly what we need in American politics,” Johnson said.
Yet he failed Sunday to secure the Twin Cities Democratic Socialists of America’s endorsement. The group doesn’t think his campaign has the infrastructure to win, Johnson said, and it doesn’t want Ellison to lose.
Unruffled, Johnson is busy putting together a campaign committee to help raise his profile. He hopes it will include members of his small party, pot supporters more generally and possibly some like-minded attorneys.
That he has at least germ of political support was demonstrated by the 2,750 petition signatures he presented to the Secretary of State’s office at the filing deadline June 5. That was 750 more than required.
Johnson appreciates he is young and relatively inexperienced. And like any good attorney, he takes account of his vulnerabilities in his candidacy’s summation.
“I may be less experienced than some other candidates, but I think I am coming from a good place that leaves me the best suited to serve the legal needs of the state,” he said. “I bring a fresh face, a fresh outlook and bold and principled ideas.”
Name: Noah M. Johnson
Grew up in: Robbinsdale and north Minneapolis
Lives in: Midtown Minneapolis
Education: University of Minnesota (2011)
J.D.: Mitchell Hamline School of Law (2017)
Hobbies: Reading, enjoying nature, music, art, spending time with friends and baseball.
Surprising facts: “I’m a very good parallel parker, I can’t whistle and I am upping my tolerance for spicy food.”