This week, Barack Obama filled the top spot at the Drug Enforcement Administration after former Administrator Michele Leonhart stepped down last month. Before we take a look at who Obama tapped to be his new DEA chief, let’s pause to reflect on some of the highlights of the outgoing Administrator’s tenure.
Leonhart’s time as the DEA chief was disastrous, to put it lightly. Appointed by Bush and held over by the Obama Administration, she was initially thrust into the public eye after her awkward colloquy with Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) before the House Judiciary Committee, during which he tried unsuccessfully to get Leonhart to admit heroin was more harmful than cannabis. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) also grilled her in the same Subcommittee hearing, making her look as clueless, ineffectual, and embarrassing as the drug policies she had been tasked with carrying out.
But looking and being foolish during her Congressional testimony was not what did her in — though it should have. Despite managing to humiliate herself yet again before Congress by stating that the lowest point in 33 her years of service with the DEA was when Congress flew a hemp-woven flag over the capitol on the Fourth of July, arguing that cannabis prohibition is justified because marijuana might kill puppies, and publicly denouncing President Obama’s increasingly moderate stance on cannabis prohibition, she kept her job.
Her public gaffes on cannabis policy were probably the least scandalous of her tenure. Under her leadership, the DEA has recklessly flouted the limits of its authority, engaging in warrantless surveillance with the NSA and then lying about it to skirt the Fourth Amendment. It has colluded with Mexican drug cartels to smuggle assault weapons and launder drug money. It also nearly killed a suspect in custody by locking him in a room, forgetting to feed him for five days, and forcing him to survive by drinking his own urine (the agency settled the lawsuit for $4.1 million).
Astonishingly, none of these oversights cost Leonhart her job. What ultimately prompted her resignation was a DOJ Report detailing how DEA Special Agents were hosting, at taxpayer-funded apartments, orgies with prostitutes whose services were paid for by the drug cartels they were policing. Usually congressional hearings are uneventful, but the House Judiciary Committee members were just beside themselves over her lapse in leadership. It’s possible her resignation wasn’t entirely voluntary, but she should have been booted long before given the chance to walk away on her own volition.
In her stead President Obama has appointed Chuck Rosenberg as interim DEA Administrator. He is an internal hire, having worked for the Department of Justice for many years as the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, and most recently as the FBI’s Chief of Staff.
Our initial impressions are cautiously optimistic. There are a few things we like about him. First, he is a lawyer and public administrator by training, not a cop, having earned his Juris Doctor and Masters of Public Policy at the University of Virginia and Harvard Kennedy School, respectively. Unlike Leonhart, his previous experience was not focused primarily on drug interdiction, but instead on financial crimes and counterterrorism cases. He has handled a number of high-profile prosecutions, Zacarias Moussaoui, John Walker Lindh, Michael Vick. There is a lot of cleaning up to do at his agency, and it is not clear how high state-regulated cannabis ranks on his list of priorities, at least right away. This guy has demonstrated that he likes going after the biggest of fish, and there isn’t as much political backwind in prosecuting pot cases as there is in going after terrorists and NFL stars turned animal abusers.
We say cautiously optimistic because, at heart, he is a former prosecutor, who are among the few types of lawyers we know who typically oppose cannabis legalization. The FBI had its hands in the same dirty nether-regions of the national security apparatus as the DEA (and NSA, CIA, etc.), so he doesn’t have the cleanest hands, generally speaking. But as far as cannabis goes, the jury is out.
But no matter how good Rosenberg may be, we see the DEA as being corrupt/corrupted to its core and there is no way any one person or even team of people can clean it up. Its agents have been — for the most part — wound up to view marijuana as bad and trying to teach those dogs new tricks is almost certainly going to be impossible. We once again call for Disbanding the DEA. Its core is rotten throughout and there is no reason to believe this can or will ever change, no matter what happens with one or two people at its top.
This is NOT a radical position, if anything it leans towards conservatism in that it stems from our belief that a government agency once wound up to do one thing cannot unwind and must be eliminated. We stand by the following argument we made previously in our post Disband the DEA:
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.
President Obama ran and was elected by claiming he would bring about “change.” Disbanding the DEA is just one of the changes that he should enact before his term expires.
Do you agree?