WASHINGTON, D.C. 23 April. 2015 —Last week’s vote of no confidence in Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) head Michele Leonhart came as no surprise. The US House Oversight Committee made the career-ending determination after a week of hearings in which the committee reacted to reports that DEA agents in Colombia not only attended frequent sex parties with prostitutes paid for by drug cartels, but also received weapons and cash from cartel members. Ten agents were disciplined but none were fired by director Leonhart.
During her eight-year tenure, Leonhart, 59,earned the wrath of cannabis reform advocates with her hardline – some have argued, vindictive – stance on cannabis laws. She appeared to target states that legalized medical use, overseeing federal raids on licensed medical marijuana providers and growers. Her intractability on drug policy increasingly placed her at odds with the Obama administration’s “look the other way” position on cannabis use in states that passed legalization measures.
In 2011, she set aside an opinion from the DEA’s own administrative law judge that favored moves to facilitate clinical research into marijuana as a medicine. Judge Mary Ellen Bittner determined that allowing a researcher at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to cultivate marijuana for use in FDA-approved clinical trials would be “in the public interest.” Bittner wrote: “I conclude that granting Respondent’s application would not be inconsistent with the Single Convention, that there would be minimal risk of diversion of marijuana resulting from Respondent’s registration, that there is currently an inadequate supply of marijuana available for research purposes, that competition in the provision of marijuana for such purposes is inadequate, and that Respondent has complied with applicable laws and has never been convicted of any violation of any law pertaining to controlled substances. I therefore find that Respondent’s registration to cultivate marijuana would be in the public interest.”
That same year, Leonhart butted heads with a coalition of prominent advocacy groups led by NORML, when she rejected a nine-year-old petition calling for marijuana rescheduling hearings and reaffirmed the administration’s discredited position regarding the medical properties of cannabis. Leonhart stated: “[T]here is no substantial evidence that marijuana should be removed from schedule I.” The written summary of her rationale encapsulates the Catch-22 logic that has kept medical research in a limbo, denying rescheduling because there is little clinical proof of medical benefits, and in turn ensuring clinical studies remain stymied because cannabis is treated as a class I substance:
In public testimony in 2012 before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, Leonhart faced tough questions comparing the health impacts of cannabis with harder drugs from Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), who at one point asked: “Is crack worse for a person than marijuana?” Leonhart declined to state whether she believed that crack cocaine, methamphetamine, or heroin posed greater risks than cannabis, saying only that: “I believe all illegal drugs are bad.”
Leonhart’s testimony was subsequently parodied by comedians and Internet memes. Months later, Leonhart’s minions rejected Colorado’s request that cannabis no longer be classified as a Schedule I drug, a request was made in conjunction with a passage in Amendment 64, the 2012 measure that legalized recreational cannabis in Colorado.
Last year, during a closed-door speech to law enforcement officials, Leonhart reportedly criticized the president after comments he made to The New Yorker on cannabis’ relative safety compared to alcohol. She openly criticized White House support of state decisions to regulate the drug or reduce penalties for its use and distribution, and even the hemp industry was a focus. Leonhart, who actively opposed hemp law reform and said the symbolic decision to fly a hempen flag over the Capitol was her “lowest point in 33 years in the DEA.” In 2014, her agency seized 250 pounds of legal hemp seeds destined for Kentucky’s state Agricultural Department.
Her retirement could set off a battle on Capitol Hill over the nomination of her successor, with some liberal Democrats calling for Mr. Obama to name an administrator who backs a change in policy on marijuana, and conservative lawmakers opposing such a move.
“I encourage the president to use this as an opportunity to fill this important role with someone who understands the outdated federal approach to marijuana isn’t working,” Representative Earl Blumenauer, Democrat of Oregon said of the vacancy. “The American public has moved on. Most now feel marijuana should be legalized.”