By Alex Mierjeski attn:
On Tuesday, reports emerged that Michele Leonhart, the Drug Enforcement Agency's (D.E.A.) current chief would seek a resignation in the midst of widespread allegations of misconduct within her agency. But in the wake of the announcement, marijuana legalization advocates are seeing a unique opportunity for change in their favor.
Leonhart's announcement came a month after a scathing report by the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General found that D.E.A. agents had been misusing government funds, and partaking in so-called "sex parties" with Columbian prostitutes with ties to drug cartels. At a House and Government oversight committee hearing earlier this month, both Leonhart and the agency as a whole were sharply criticized for a lack of oversight and accountability for misconduct allegations stretching back to at least 2001.
The backdrop to Leonhart's impending resignation was not necessarily one of shining reputation in the eyes of activists––or even in the White House. Leonhart, who rose through the ranks as a career D.E.A. officer, has long been criticized for her disapproval of efforts by the Obama administration to step back and let states decide their own drug laws surrounding the legalization of marijuana, medical or recreational.
"Leonhart's tenure at D.E.A. was shameful," Tom Angell, chairman of the advocacy group Marijuana Majority, told ATTN:. "From interfering with voter-approved state marijuana laws to mismanaging broader agency scandals, it's long been time for her to go. This vacancy is an opportunity for President Obama to nominate someone who recognizes and respects that the war on drugs –– particularly when it comes to marijuana –– is winding down. Hopefully he'll pick someone who is prepared to at least support rescheduling to a more scientifically appropriate category."
Despite signals from the Obama administration that drug laws, specifically those tailored to marijuana, may be antiquated, and despite the fact that many states currently experiment with medical and recreational laws, the federal government still considers marijuana a Schedule 1 substance alongside heroin––in other words, a drug with no potential medical benefits. That classification discrepancy has led to federal raids of marijuana businesses operating in accordance to state laws, but not federal ones. It's something that advocates have long petitioned to change––and with Leonhart out of the picture, a powerful figure who championed a "mindset straight out of the 1930s," according to Dan Riffle of the Marijuana Policy Project, activists are seeing an opportunity.
"[Leonhart] has been really at the core of so much destruction in our eyes over the years," Steph Sherer, Executive Director of Americans for Safe Access, told ATTN:. "She's one of the last Bush holdover appointees, and really led the war on patients under Bush and some of the beginning years under Obama, and was a key obstructionist for the rescheduling of cannabis."
The announcement also comes after an interview between Obama and CNN's chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta in the channel's "Weed 3" documentary, which aired Sunday. In the show, Obama signaled his support for science, not ideology, driving future drug policy. "You know, I'd have to take a look at the details," Obama said, "but I'm on record as saying that not only do I think carefully prescribed medical use of marijuana may in fact be appropriate and we should follow the science as opposed to ideology on this issue, but I'm also on record as saying that the more we treat some of these issues related to drug abuse from a public health model and not just from an incarceration model, the better off we're going to be."
But Leonhart's views on the matter were out of step, according to Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.). "She was insubordinate to the president when she criticized his acknowledgement of the fact that marijuana is 'no more harmful than alcohol,'" Cohen said in a statement.
Other advocates chose to keep a hopeful eye on the future. "I think that we really have an opportunity to find someone that's willing to embrace this administration's drug policy views...so we're really looking forward to someone who can stand by the president's policies on cannabis and really look at the defiance that's in front of them on this issue," said Sherer. "It makes for a hopeful end of this administration."