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Many mainstream media outlets have been noting that Michelle Leonhart’s resignation from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) presents a perfect opportunity for real policy reform in the United States. Instead of appointing a new head who will blindly pursue the status quo of prohibition policies that have utterly failed, the new head of this agency should come in ready to make drastic changes. After all, this organization is plagued by scandals, including rogue agents who just want to make money off prohibition. Perhaps, instead of appointing a new chief, the Obama administration should consider dissolving an agency which does little more than protect itself and encourage the mass incarceration of American citizens.
So far in 2015, the DEA has had enough bad press to justify an official inquiry into whether its continued operation makes any sense. For example, on February 28th, 2015, the Drug Enforcement Administration Educational Foundation sent what could generously be called an incredibly tone-deaf tweet. Ostensibly in honor of the last day of Black History Month, their social media team sent out a color photograph of DEA posing in front of the seized vehicle of a black man with the words “Leroy Butler, a significant heroin trafficker in New York City, was arrested in 1980 #BlackHistoryMonth #tbt.”
Plenty of people on Twitter were quick to catch the gaffe, including Ladybud’s own social media account. Many were quick to point out that this kind of message is completely antithetical to the intention of Black History Month, while others noted this was more a symptom of a systemic cultural issue with law enforcement and Drug Enforcement Administration agents in particular. Twitter user Ryan The Iconoclast (@libertyisdead1) replied with “I already knew how much pleasure they take in destroying black ppl’s lives. Nothing new learned here.”
Diane Wattles Goldstein from Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) was also not surprised by this serious social media gaffe. “Actually it’s not surprising the DEA’s single focus on drugs has turned their agency into one where groupthink reigns. They are unable to evolve, which I can only hope leads to the agency eventually being abolished.”
After several hours and serious online backlash, the DEA Ed Foundation did respond with a series of three apology tweets, which read: “Added clarification: African American DEA Agents pictured with car in Butler case. DEA among 1st federal law agencies to hire black agents. Focus of original tweet was to be invaluable hard work of African American DEA agents, not the target of the investigation. We apologize for any confusion we caused with our poor wording of the original tweet.”
At the end of the day, these agents are posing for a picture intended to brag about the property they seized (the $40,000 Rolls Royce), which was pictured in the background. Asset forfeiture has, for decades, been one of the most important components of the War on Drugs and a major source of funding for state and federal law enforcement. Celebrating the theft of a citizen’s property and their incarceration for a non-violent crime should be considered anti-social behavior. The DEA Ed Foundation did not send a tweet naming the agents in the photo (left to right, their names are Special Agent Lewis Rice, Special Agent Thor Nowozeniuk and Fred Gormandy); they sent a tweet naming one of the people of color who was arrested as part of this operation. They are, in essence, celebrating the use of black male employees to arrest and prosecute other black men, thus exposing the institutionalized racism in which their agency plays a massive role.
The DEA wasn’t happy with just sending an epic and inappropriate tweet for Black History Month. In February, they also sent an agent with a dire warning about the impact of medical cannabis programs on rabbits in Utah to testify in front of the state Senate. According to a marijuana eradication specialist who testified in Utah about Senate Bill 259, the cannabis grown in the state to help medical patients with real issues could lead to rabbits eating cannabis plants and thus getting high. Someone had better explain to this gentleman, whose name is Matt Fairbanks, the difference between THCA, which occurs in cannabis plants, and Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, which is psychoactive. (Check the 58 minute mark in the hearing testimony). At least the Utah Senate wasn’t intimidated by his rhetoric; they passed the bill that would allow patients with serious medical conditions to use edible forms of cannabis. So far no reports of stoned bunnies have hit the news.
Both of these incidents make it frighteningly clear that the DEA is out of touch with both science and rapidly shifting cultural attitudes regarding prohibition and law enforcment. Compound this intellectual and cultural stagnation with legal immunity from prosecution (just look at the recent court ruling regarding a 2011 failed covert operation in Texas which resulted in the state-sanction/pardoned murder of Craig Patty’s employee, who was simply a truck driver), and you have a recipe for disaster. The current transition of leadership is long overdue, as is a massive overhaul of this entire agency.
In all honestly, it appears that the routine, unprosecuted murders and law-breaking by agents was not what finally convinced Michelle Leonhart to retire; it was the current sex scandal involving agents having sex parties with prostitutes in Columbia. It is a sad state of affairs when one of the most powerful law enforcement officials in the country is comfortable denying that heroin is worse for an individual user than cannabis, but don’t feel up to the task of facing an inquiry over agents abusing their position.
While most Americans embrace the idea of cannabis as medicine and a majority now support legalization of cannabis for recreational purposes, the DEA continues to beat its prohibition-positive drum, patting itself on the back for ruining the lives of non-violent citizens and trying to preserve its own power and budget by preaching reefer madness. Worse, too many of those working for this agency are happy to view the citizens of our country as enemy combatants and/or to abuse their positions of unquestioned power for their own financial gain or sexual gratification. If they don’t adjust their approach to prohibition and drug enforcement soon, this agency may soon become completely anachronistic and the focus of very intense public scrutiny.
While I (and many others) would like to see the DEA put out to pasture entirely, I understand that a shift of that magnitude isn’t likely to happen overnight. If the federal government insists on maintaining this organization, they ought to appoint someone whose beliefs are more in line with the average citizen’s when it comes to drug policy. As such, I’d like to suggest Neill Franklin, the current executive director for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). His 34 years of working in law enforcement ensure he has an accurate, reality-based view of the war on drugs and the impact of prohibition. His passion for reform and social justice should ensure many positive changes in staff, policy and overall culture at the DEA.
Wattles Goldstein. She has witnessed first hand the cultural corruption within law enforcement caused by the war on drugs and has devoted herself tirelessly for years to fighting said corruption. As a retired Lieutenant Commander, she has seen her fair share of arrests and trials, and she still believes that the war on drugs and federal prohibition policies are economically wasteful and inherently unjust. I can think of no better reformer than someone who would want, in the end, to make her own position obsolete.