The resignation of the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Michele Leonhart, comes as no surprise to those of us working to reform the agency. The DEA is a bloated, wasteful, scandal-ridden bureaucracy charged with the impossible task of keeping humans from doing something they’ve been doing for thousands of years –altering their consciousness. As states legalize marijuana, reform sentencing, and treat drug use more as a health issue and less as a criminal justice issue the DEA must change with the times. Leonhart’s departure is an opportunity to appoint someone who will overhaul the agency and support reform.
The DEA has existed for more than 40 years, but little attention has been given to the role the agency has played in fueling mass incarceration, racial disparities and other drug war problems. Congress has rarely scrutinized the agency, its actions or its budget, instead deferring to DEA Administrators on how best to deal with drug-related issues. The failure to exercise oversight over one of the most powerful enforcement agencies in the world has led to disaster, including questionable enforcement practices; numerous scandals and human rights abuses; and open defiance of statutory requirements requiring decisions be based on scientific evidence.
The Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General currently has six open investigations into numerous DEA scandals, including the massacre of civilians in Honduras, the use of NSA data to both spy on virtually all Americans and to systematically fabricate evidence, and controversial uses of confidential informants. A series of recent investigations by USA Today found that the DEA has been tracking billions of U.S. phone calls without suspicion of wrong-doing, an operation copied by the NSA and other agencies after 9/11. The DEA built the modern surveillance state.
Leonhart publicly rebuked President Obama for admitting that marijuana is as safe as alcohol, told members of Congress that the DEA will continue to go after marijuana even in states where it is legal despite DOJ guidance stating otherwise, and spoke out against bipartisan drug sentencing reform in Congress. Last May, the DEA created a political firestorm when it seized seeds bound for a Kentucky hemp research program that was approved by Congress. Then Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) called the incident “an outrage” and the agency was forced to back down.
The agency has a long history of disregarding science. It obstructed a formal request to reschedule marijuana for 16 years. After being forced by the courts to make a decision, the agency declared marijuana to have no medical value, despite massive evidence to the contrary. The agency’s own administrative law judge held two years of hearings and concluded marijuana in its natural form is “one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man” and should be made available for medical use. Similar hearings on MDMA, aka ecstasy, concluded it has important medical uses, but the DEA again overruled its administrative law judge.
President Obama should appoint someone who can turn the heavy $2-billion-a-year DEA ship in a new direction. There’s no law requiring the head of the DEA to have a background in policing or prosecution, and it’s worth thinking outside of the box when considering an appointment. Regardless of their background, whoever replaces Leonhart should have certain basic qualities, such as a respect for research and the scientific process. They should be a consensus builder who can engage with leaders in U.S. states, Congress and foreign nations who want to have a dialogue about moving beyond punitive drug policies. They should respect the will of the people and stop arresting people in the 35 states that have adopted some kind of marijuana law reform.
President Obama has an opportunity to make history by appointing someone who will support sentencing reform, face the reality of racial disparities, respect science, and work with leaders who want a new approach. The next DEA head should not only reform the agency but reduce its footprint. Federal drug enforcement should focus on large cases that cross international and state boundaries, with a priority toward violent traffickers and major crime syndicates. All other cases should be left to the states.