Let’s start with a debatable premise: marijuana should be legal, but hard drugs like heroin and meth should remain illegal. Reasonable people can and do disagree with this position, it is probably where a majority of Americans stand on drug policy. Is it possible to have a Drug Enforcement Agency that limits itself to combatting what most people consider to be the “dangerous” drugs?
This issue has been brought into focus because Michelle Leonhart, the administrator of the DEA, resigned this week. The DEA has not been having a good time lately, especially when it was revealed that DEA agents had been having sex parties sponsored by drug cartels in a brazen example of hypocrisy, corruption, and a dash of treason. Leonhart punished the agents caught in this scandal with 7-10 day suspensions and told Congress that she could not fire them. Congress did not believe her and gave her a lashing during hearings, and the White House refused to offer her its support, so Leonhart stepped down.
This is not the first time Leonhart has been in the public eye for negative reasons. She pointed at heartbreaking levels of violence in Mexico as indicating success in the war on drugs. She openly and insubordinately criticized President Obama for making objectively true statements about the safety of marijuana and alcohol. Last but not least, we have this fantastic video:
So, is our soon-to-be former DEA administrator incredibly clueless about the substances that her agency regulates, or is she the dishonest, immoral epitome of self-serving bureaucracy? Most definitely the latter.
We know exactly why someone like Michelle Leonhart would be willing to mislead Congress and be willing to cover up for agent misdeeds. The DEA exists because of the war on drugs. The more drugs that are illegal, the more funding the DEA can command, the more agents it can employ, and the broader its reach can be. The thing that is not always clear to those outside government is that executive agencies really are little fiefdoms, and their administrators often rum them with seemingly no other purpose than to increase the size, power, and legitimacy of their institutions. Leonhart’s comments and actions are indicative of the head of an agency interested in its self preservation above all else.
The DEA is a bit of an odd duck. It is a law enforcement agency like the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. It also licenses physicians to prescribe controlled substances, and it is responsible for approving requests by research institutions to study drugs. It even publishes its own propaganda. This all came to pass when Richard Nixon created the DEA to unify federal (anti) drug policy in 1973. Based on the DEA’s sordid history, it does not seem like we will ever see much good come out of this agency. Dan Riffle of the Marijuana Policy Project has suggested either not replacing Leonhart or bringing on an administrator with a public health background to begin reforming the DEA into a public health and science oriented agency. The problem is that the DEA’s original mandate, though drafted by President Nixon, was approved by Congress. The smarter policy would be to disband the DEA, putting all drug research and licensing into the hands of the FDA, and giving drug law enforcement to the FBI. Maybe then the propaganda would stop, as those agencies have reasons to exist beyond the drug war.