Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson could make legalizing marijuana an issue in the 2012 Republican presidential primary if he decides to run. 

"The issue of marijuana legalization is obviously an attention-getter," Johnson told the St. Petersburg Times after a testing-the-waters visit to Florida last week. "And you can't shy away from it. I have to defend it. I have to defend the position."

Johnson, a successful businessman, served two terms as governor of New Mexico from 1995-2003. He hasn't yet declared if he'll run for his party’s 2012 nomination.

If he does make a bid, Johnson admitted it won't be easy to explain his position on the drug war to a skeptical primary electorate in 30-second TV ads.

"And it's not, really, a 30-second sound-bite deal," he said. "It's maybe about a three-minute deal."

Johnson argued that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol and the cost of incarcerating smokers is too great. Moreover, according to Johnson, marijuana would be considered less of a gateway drug if it were sold alongside "more dangerous drugs'' such as alcohol.

"I don't drink. I don't smoke pot. But I've drank and I've smoked pot," Johnson told the paper. "The big difference between the two is that marijuana is a lot safer than alcohol."

The loosening of legal restrictions on marijuana use has already be an issue in several states.

Earlier this month, Arizona became the 15th state, in addition to the District of Columbia, to have passed medical marijuana laws since 1996, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy group. In California, however, a ballot measure legalizing marijuana use failed to pass.