Reactions to D.E.A. Chief Michele Leonhart's Resignation

Count me among the satisfied that Leonhart will be leaving her government job soon. With her departure, President Obama now has the opportunity to name someone to the job who can clearly see the future of drug policy reform.
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Yesterday, the news broke that the head of the Drug Enforcement Agency, Michele Leonhart, will be resigning her post. Leonhart has long been controversial, openly contradicting the White House and President Obama at times. She was seen as out of step since both Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have moved the federal stance on marijuana closer to the new reality of states now legalizing it for adult recreational use. But it wasn't her controversial positions that forced her ouster, it was instead the news that D.E.A. agents in Colombia had been accepting from the drug cartels themselves not just gifts of fancy weapons but also "sex parties" with strippers and prostitutes. This, obviously, is unacceptable behavior.

But while Leonhart's exit was prompted by the revelations in an Inspector General's report, my own reaction was similar to the points made in a Marijuana Policy Project press release -- that there were plenty of substantial reasons to get rid of Leonhart. They helpfully listed a few:

During her tenure as D.E.A. administrator, Leonhart:

  • refused to answer a congressman's question about whether marijuana poses less potential harm to the consumer than crack, heroin or methamphetamine and criticized President Obama for acknowledging the fact that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol to the consumer;
  • obstructed research into the medical benefits of marijuana by overruling the D.E.A.'s own administrative law judge, who ruled that it would be in the public interest to end the National Institute on Drug Abuse's monopoly on the supply of marijuana available for approved research;
  • oversaw raids of medical marijuana dispensaries that were operating legally under state laws;
  • reportedly called it the worst day of her 33 years in law enforcement when an American flag made of hemp was flown over the U.S. Capitol Building; and
  • criticized the White House for playing in a softball game against a team of individuals from drug policy reform organizations.

The Marijuana Policy Project sponsored a petition that called for Leonhart's resignation, which now has over 46,000 signatures.

When the news broke of Leonhart's resignation, many in the marijuana reform movement rejoiced. Congressman Steve Cohen (who rightly calls himself "a strong voice in Congress for criminal drug policy reform" and who has been calling for Leonhart's resignation for over a year now) put up a press release on his official website, with the statement:

It is appropriate that Michele Leonhart resign; she has not prioritized or concentrated on drugs that actually lead people to commit crimes like heroin and methamphetamine and she was insubordinate to the president when she criticized his acknowledgement of the fact that marijuana is no more harmful than alcohol. Hopefully her successor will help lead the effort to reschedule marijuana from Schedule I, where it is currently restricted at the same level as heroin and at a higher level than more harmful drugs like cocaine.

Another strong marijuana reformer in the House, Congressman Jared Polis, shared his own thoughts, when contacted:

I was thrilled to see that Ms. Leonhart would be stepping down from her post next month. We need a more sensible approach to our federal drug policies and it was clear that Ms. Leonhart was too beholden to antiquated and outdated laws and unwilling to fix things that were broken or look at basic science. I hope that our next D.E.A. chief will be better equipped to recognize simple truths such as, for example, that marijuana causes less harm to the body and mind than heroin.

I checked in with a few drug reform lobbying organizations for their reactions to Leonhart's departure, and further asked them who Obama should pick to replace her, or at the very least, what Obama should look for in his candidate for the job. Tom Angell, Chairman of Marijuana Majority, responded:

Leonhart's tenure at the D.E.A. was shameful. From interfering with voter-approved state marijuana laws to mismanaging broader agency scandals, it's long been time for her to go. This vacancy is an opportunity for President Obama to nominate someone who recognizes and respects that the war on drugs -- particularly when it comes to marijuana -- is winding down. Hopefully he'll pick someone who is prepared to at least support rescheduling marijuana to a more scientifically appropriate category.

In the Marijuana Policy Project press release, Director Dan Riffle offered up his thoughts:

Ms. Leonhart consistently and recklessly undermined President Obama's mandate that public policy be guided by science instead of ideology. Her resignation will allow the president to appoint an administrator who will rely on the facts rather than ignore them.

Most Americans, including President Obama, recognize the fact that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol. Yet, Ms. Leonhart was unwilling to even acknowledge that marijuana poses less potential harm than heroin and methamphetamine.

While most of the country has been progressing in its views on marijuana policy, Ms. Leonhart has maintained a mindset straight out of the 1930s. Hopefully her resignation will mark the end of the Reefer Madness era at the D.E.A.

When personally contacted and asked his thoughts about a replacement, Riffle was more blunt:

She shouldn't be replaced. We shouldn't have a law-enforcement agency in charge of what are essentially scientific questions about drugs. If we want to make D.E.A. solely a law-enforcement agency we should take this opportunity to consider folding it into the F.B.I. because, as President Obama himself has said, drug use should be a public health issue not a law-enforcement and criminal justice issue.

Taylor West, Deputy Director of the National Cannabis Industry Association (the "national trade association that represents the businesses of the legal cannabis industry") responded with the following statement:

The departure of Michele Leonhart is long overdue for many reasons. It's our hope that the president will replace her with someone who respects state laws regarding cannabis and holds to the administration's clearly stated enforcement priorities.

And, just for fun (and just because I love plugging his worthy project), I contacted Bruce Roter, the College of Saint Rose professor who is spearheading the effort to build The Museum of Political Corruption in Albany, NY. His reaction:

By resigning, Michele Leonhart is doing the appropriate thing, and only thing she can at this point. She's demonstrating that when taxpayer resources are intentionally misused and when the public trust in its security agents is compromised, there's got to be a stiff price to pay, from the top on down.

I've been calling for Leonhart's resignation (or firing) for almost a year now, personally. Then again, when it was revealed that a D.E.A. agent in Colombia and her husband were caught in a fake kidnapping plot, and the agent wasn't immediately fired by the D.E.A. And again, after it was revealed that the D.E.A. was paying an Amtrak employee to provide them with passenger information that they could have gotten for free. Time after time, Leonhart has shown she cannot control her agency and her agents, to say nothing of her outright and public contradiction of factual statements made by her boss, President Barack Obama. Not only the agency, but Leonhart herself was out of control.

So count me among the satisfied that Leonhart will be leaving her government job soon. With her departure, President Obama now has the opportunity to name someone to the job who can clearly see the future of drug policy reform, especially on the subject of reforming our outdated and counterproductive federal laws on marijuana. I echo many when I say that -- at a minimum -- the next head of the D.E.A. should support moving marijuana off of Schedule I. This is the most outdated obstacle to marijuana legal reform left standing, and anyone who runs the D.E.A. should both recognize that and support rescheduling marijuana.

Marijuana reform is at a crossroads in Washington. Not only will we soon have a new D.E.A. chief, but his or her boss will also be new, as Attorney General Eric Holder steps down. Marijuana reform could be helped or hindered by whatever new policies these two people decide upon.

But, at this point, it's hard to imagine any D.E.A. leader could be worse than what we've seen during the tenure of Michele Leonhart. She needed to go, and she really needed to go a long time ago. Better late than never, America will now have a new top drug warrior. Here's hoping we get someone who can see the arc of history bending in a different direction.

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