Change at the DEA or More of the Same?


Cannabis law reformers and anyone interested in competent governance have cheered the fact that Michele Leonhart has been ousted as head of the Drug Enforcement Agency. Leonhart, a Bush appointee, should have been fired long ago as the DEA has a long list of misdeeds under her watch, she demonstrated a reluctance to follow President Obama’s agenda, fought against support policies favored by a vast majority of Americans or demonstrate any common sense about the harm of marijuana compared to other drugs. Leonhart’s actions should have been deemed insubordination by the Obama Administration, but it took a grilling by a congressional oversight committee to finally put on display Leonhart’s utter incompetence and finally cost her the job as chief of the DEA.

Everyone knows that sex sells and not many things capture headlines like sex. Throw in drugs and guns and you have the makings of a Quentin Tarantino movie or a government corruption story that can actually bring together Democrats, Republicans and everyone in between to call for the firing of an out-of-touch government official. It shouldn’t have taken DEA sex parties with prostitutes paid for by violent drug cartels to end Leonhart’s incompetent reign, but beggars can’t be choosers, so supporters of sensible drug policies will certainly take it. With Leonhart’s exit, comes hope that the next DEA chief won’t be an obstacle to common sense reforms supported by a strong majority of voters. From Time:

“Leonhart opposed medical marijuana, she opposed sentencing reform, she opposed pretty much everything that Obama was doing and for that matter everything Congress was doing,” says Bill Piper, the director of National Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance.

The Drug Policy Alliance is one of several drug and marijuana policy organizations that have previously called for Leonhart’s removal. Following a speech in which Leonhart was critical of Obama’s assertion that smoking marijuana was no more harmful that drinking alcohol, the Marijuana Policy Project and over 47,000 citizens called for her to resign. A Drug Policy Alliance petition called for her removal following revelations that the DEA had been tracking citizens’ phone calls for decades. Organizations including Students for Sensible Drug Policy and the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws have also called for her resignation.

Though who will be filling in for Leonhart isn’t yet clear, activists say her replacement should be more supportive of ongoing reform initiatives, including reducing mass incarceration and taking the health impact of drugs into consideration when formulating policy. What’s more, Piper says, her removal could lead the Obama administration to reschedule marijuana before the President leaves office.

President Obama has been a bit of a mixed bag for supporters of marijuana law reform and broader drug policy changes. Presidential candidate Obama campaigned on respecting the will of the voters that passed state medical cannabis laws, but his administration’s actions didn’t match the rhetoric at first. There was a modest bill to reform the sentencing discrepancy between crack and cocaine and then his federal enforcement policies, for the most part, have turned out to follow his medical marijuana states’ rights position as a candidate. On legalization, the Obama administration has been cautious, but has basically allowed Colorado and Washington to implement their policies as their voters intended and we can expect the same in Alaska in Colorado. Also, he recently commuted the sentences of 22 nonviolent drug offenders, promising a more aggressive clemency policy.

I have very low expectations for politicians, so President Obama has basically done all that I hoped he would do, which is basically adhere to the conservative policy of states’ rights on marijuana policy, a position now shared by Jeb Bush, of all people.It is unfortunate that the former Choom Gang member has laughed and cracked jokes about marijuana during his tenure, but he has improved federal policy and he now has the opportunity to demonstrate real leadership on a burgeoning bipartisan issue that impacts our economy and our civil rights.    I do think that we can thank the President for moving us past the notion that it is acceptable for armed federal agents to trample the will of the voters who have chosen to end cannabis prohibition within their borders (unless your name is Chris Christie, that is). However, the goal posts have now moved and it is time for true leadership and true reform.

The changing of the guard at the top of the DEA has provided President Obama and everyone that supports drug policy reform to help implement lasting change that can benefit millions upon millions of people. Change at the DEA or more of the same? Only time will tell, but the opportunity is there. Let’s hope that President Obama, and all of us, seize this opportunity.

Anthony, a longtime cannabis law reform advocate, was Chief Petitioner and co-author of Measure 91, Oregon's cannabis legalization effort. He served as director of both the New Approach Oregon and Vote Yes on 91 PACs, the political action committees responsible for the state's legalization campaign. As director of New Approach Oregon, Anthony continues to work towards effectively implementing the cannabis legalization system while protecting small business owners and the rights of patients. He sits on the Oregon Marijuana Rules Advisory Committee and fights for sensible rules at the legislature as well as city councils and county commissions across the state. Anthony helps cannabis business comply with Oregon's laws and advises advocates across the country. He also serves as content director of both the International Cannabis Business Conference and the Oregon Marijuana Business Conference, helping share the vision of moving the cannabis industry forward in a way that maintains the focus on keeping people out of prison and protecting patients. He was a member of the Oregon Health Authority Rules Advisory Committee, assisting the drafting of the administrative rules governing Oregon’s state-licensed medical marijuana facilities. He first co-authored and helped pass successful marijuana law reform measures while a law student at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law. He passed the Oregon Bar in 2005 and practiced criminal defense for two years before transitioning to working full-time in the political advocacy realm. His blogs on Marijuana Politics are personal in nature and don't speak for or reflect the opinions of any group or organization.