Marijuana Activists Cheer Michele Leonhart's Exit from the DEA

Advocates hope that outgoing chief Michele Leonhart will be replaced by someone who is more open to studies that show marijuana is relatively safer than other drugs.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 12: U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Administrator Michelle Leonhart testifies before the Senate Appropriations Committee's Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Subcommittee about the ATF's FY2016 budget in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill March 12, 2015 in Washington, DC. Leonhart and the heads of the U.S. Marshals Service, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation testified about funding requests and budget justifications.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Drug Enforcement Agency chair Michele Leonhart was done in by her agents’ unsanctioned, cartel-funded sex parties in Colombia, but it’s marijuana legalization advocates who are excited to see her go. 

“Hopefully this is a sign that the Reefer Madness era is coming to an end at the DEA,” said Mason Tvert, the director on communications at the Marijuana Policy Project. “Michelle Leonhart has maintained an opinion about marijuana akin to the opinion people had back in the 30s.” 

As Bloomberg reported, Attorney General Eric Holder said a statement that Leonhart will step down in May, after a Department of Justice watchdog report found that several agents were involved in inappropriate behavior, and a majority of lawmakers on the House Oversight committee voted to express they had “no confidence” in her leadership. Given the chance, marijuana policy activists—opposed to her strict opposition to both recreational and medicinal marijuana—would have voted her out several years ago. Now, they're hoping for someone who, like President Obama, is interested in a more science focused response to drug policy.

“This is a very exciting moment for the Drug Policy Reform movement,” Tom Angell, the founder of Marijuana Majority, told Bloomberg. “We’ve been basically working towards her resignation or firing or removal by other means as head of the DEA since the president, for some reason, decided to appoint her.”

Angell said that advocates were disappointed and shocked that Obama reappointed Leonhart—a holdover from the Bush administration—to the job in 2010. Since then she's taken a very firm anti-marijuana stance that has alienated supporters of less strict drug laws. In 2011 she was criticized for saying that increased drug war violence in Mexico, including the deaths of over a 1,000 children, was “a sign of success in the fight against drugs.” During a 2012 House Judiciary subcommittee hearing, Leonhart refused to say whether marijuana is safer than crack. 

Days after Obama, in January of 2014, told The New Yorker that marijuana is safer than alcohol, Leonhart reportedly criticized his comments and said that the lowest day of her 33 years in law enforcement was when a hemp flag flew over the nation’s capital. “Obviously we shouldn’t judge her based on her one comment, but it’s a very telling comment,” Tvert said. Tvert accused Leonhart of being “an anti-marijuana zealot” and said the next DEA chair “must be willing and able to recognize the fact that marijuana is relatively less harmful than alcohol and other illegal drugs.” 

Leonhart staked out her stance on marijuana science in 2011, when the federal government ruled against reclassifying marijuana. Currently cannabis is a schedule one drug, as are heroin and other hard drugs. In a letter to petitioners hoping for the reclassification, Leonhart said “she rejected the request because marijuana ‘has a high potential for abuse,’ ‘has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States’ and ‘lacks accepted safety for use under medical supervision,’” according to the Los Angeles Times. At the same time, research has shown that marijuana is less lethal than other drugs, and offer medicinal benefits for a variety of conditions. 

Meanwhile, President Obama has emphasized the importance of prioritizing science over ideology in the drug debate in recent years. In a 2014 White House report outlining the administration’s 21st century drug policy, the government emphasized the role science played. And during a CNN documentary that aired on—of course—April 20 this year, Obama reiterated that “we should follow the science as opposed to ideology on this issue.”

Angell noted that Obama now was a chance to prove his commitment to science over ideology. “The president always talks about how science should dictate public policy,” he said. “Well, now he has a chance to actually appoint someone who’s going to carry that through.” 

While Leonhart's comments have caused controversy—and headlines—Angell said his real problem was with the agency's raids on legal marijuana operations. Leonhart promised to enforce federal drug laws in states that legalized medical marijuana during her confirmation hearing, and despite Obama's promise not to interfere with legal medical marijuana operations, she kept her promises and raided several dispensaries during Obama's first term

“The extent to which she’s been willing to spend federal tax payer money trying to overturn the will of voters in a growing number of states—that to me is the most offensive thing,” he said. 

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