Why a Pissed Off DEA Director is a Good Thing

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IMAGE: Mickey Martin

Michele M. Leonhart, Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) had some nasty words about President Obama’s recent statements on marijuana’s relative health risks and disparities in its enforcement at a recent meeting of the National Sheriff’s Association. While video or transcripts have yet to emerge, some law enforcement veterans expressed surprise at her level of candor on disagreeing with the president’s (pretty  accurate) views. Apparently, she also thinks hemp textiles are a drug.

Bristol County, Mass., Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson told the Boston Herald “she said her lowest point in 33 years in the DEA was when she learned they’d flown a hemp flag over the Capitol on July 4. The sheriffs were all shocked. This is the first time in 28 years I’ve ever heard anyone in her position be this candid.”

Obama may be surprised, but he shouldn’t be. Dissent to his views or policies isn’t new. He’s been called out at public events, in print, and online, even during a State of Union address. DEA Chief of Operations James L. Capra got so worked up about pot legalization during a recent Senate hearing he apologized for his own testimony.


Leonhart in happier times

Why is the DEA mad? Doesn’t Leonhart appreciate that there have been more medical marijuana raids under Obama’s tenure than under any previous presidential administration?

Of course she does, because it was her tenure too. Michele’s a career drug warrior, but because of cannabis reform’s success, there were more states with more storefronts helping more patients using more pot than at any time before. There was more opportunity, large visibility, and a few genuine bad-actors. The DEA did what it was always done.

By her efforts, Obama has been slammed by most of the drug reform movement as history’s worst president on medical pot. What we tend to gloss over is that there are two reasons: one is Obama, the other Leonhart.

Obama inherited both Leonhart and DEA policy from parties and presidents before him. At the beginning, Obama’s transition team got loads of specific feedback from many, including yours truly. One common theme was the need for clearer directives to the DEA (and other agencies) about what kind of enforcement and investigations were needed in states where it was legal.

The president’s (scarce) drug policy rhetoric about the balance of treatment, enforcement, and prevention, installment of a lesser drug warrior (Gil Kerlikowski, as the nation’s “drug czar”), and continued endorsement of Leonhart foretold the manic failure of his administration to have any original policies of its own.

DEAIn that one way, I don’t blame Obama. I don’t see him taking glee in hurting patients (be it through access to marijuana or a functioning website), and I’m guessing he wasn’t calling up Leonhart’s office saying “Make more arrests.” I surrender that drug policy did not seem to be the nation’s top concern in early 2009. I forgive the president for not making a swift change in the drug war on his first day, week, or month.

But somewhere between his first month and the notorious “Cole Memo” in 2011, my mercy ends, and Obama needed to step up and act as a chief executive. He should have worked with – or ordered – Leonhart to use better discretion and back off in jurisdictions where it was legal unless they were proving diversion.

Instead, Deputy Attorney General James Cole wrote a narrowly worded suggestion to prosecutors to lay off on the raids. Threats of raids, and actual ones continued. A later memo would re-enforce how un-enforceable the Cole memo was.

The DEA was never mentioned in Cole’s memo. Michele was “cc’ed” on it, probably because her office was already far out of the loop on marijuana policy even by 2011. Leonhart’s comments are not those of a person on the same page with the president or his administration. The lack of influence/access would be cute, but the agency she helms manages armed agents and espionage in dozens of countries.

Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske

Part cheerleader, part liar: Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske

Forget Drug Czar Kerlikowske, who is part cheerleader, part liar for federal policy. Every weapon and terrorism-fighting, intelligence “tool” of our government is available to someone in Leonhart’s contacts list. She could well be a pleasant person, but her unmanaged middle-management of drug policy is past-due for change.

Obama’s past expediency has, like the IRS, NSA, or ATF before, let the DEA metastasize so severely that his choices are limited. Resigning to spend more time with family is something political appointees do when they like their boss. Obama might have to fire Leonhart. Petitions for giving her a pink slip aren’t hard to find.

Better would be an executive order, or giving a damn about the Controlled Substances Act enough to pressure Congress. The House and Senate know what options there are after a Congressional Research Service report last year laid out paths for modifying, ignoring, or enforcing federal law. They’re just lazy or stupid, the exact behaviors some of them proudly assign to marijuana users.

A substantive change could convince Leonhart to resign. So, a P.O.’ed DEA director is a short-term good thing, but only if it leads to real changes. As big a drug war apologist as any, Obama has only himself to blame…but not for Michele’s lack of trying.