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In Slamming Obama, DEA Administrator Presents Reformers With Rare Opportunity

Michele Leonhart, acting administrator of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, delivers a speech during a press conference at the International Drug Enforcement Conference, IDEC, in Rio de Janeiro, Tuesday, April 27, 2010. This year?s conference theme of "Targeting the Facilitators" will focus on global drug trafficking organizations, precursor chemical control, the nexus between drugs and terrorism, financial facilitators, and intelligence sharing across multi-national law enforcement agencies. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
Photo of Michele Leonhart by Felipe Dana/AP


In Slamming Obama, DEA Administrator Presents Reformers With Rare Opportunity

In a speech last week to the National Sheriff’s Association, DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart had harsh words for her boss, President Obama as chronicled in the Boston Herald:

Kern County, Calif., Sheriff Donny Youngblood, president of the Major Counties Sheriffs’ Association, the group that sponsored Leonhart’s talk Tuesday at its annual meeting in Washington, D.C., said Leonhart called out Obama for what Youngblood described as “irresponsible” comments that were a “big slap in the face” to cops who have lost their lives keeping drugs off the street.

“This is a woman who has spent 33 years of her life fighting drug abuse in the DEA, her entire life. To have the president of the United States publicly say marijuana was a bad habit like alcohol was appalling to everyone in that room,” Youngblood said. “I think the way that she felt was that it was a betrayal of what she does for the American people in enforcing our drug laws. … She got a standing ovation.”

Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson said he was thrilled to hear the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration take her boss to task.

“She’s frustrated for the same reasons we are,” Hodgson said. “She said she felt the administration didn’t understand the science enough to make those statements. She was particularly frustrated with the fact that, according to her, the White House participated in a softball game with a pro-legalization group. … But she said her lowest point in 33 years in the DEA was when she learned they’d flown a hemp flag over the Capitol on July 4. The sheriffs were all shocked. This is the first time in 28 years I’ve ever heard anyone in her position be this candid.”

If true, Leonhart’s comments place her in a position of being deliberately disrespectful, if not insubordinate, to her boss, President Barack Obama. This is an untenable position for a person who is appointed by the President to head a federal law enforcement agency.

It is impossible that Leonhart, a 33-year veteran of the DEA, does not understand the import of what she said. Possibly Leonhart forsees that her rigidly authoritarian prohibitionism will increasingly come at odds with President Obama and even Attorney General Eric Holder, who have both recently begun speaking of the racial impacts of drug prohibition and mass incarceration.

Certainly, Leonhart knew her audience, a group of people that have vested interests in not only drug prohibition but in partnerships with the DEA providing asset forfeiture and grant revenues for local law enforcement. Indeed, this speech represents a naked political ploy to undermine the President’s publicly stated stance on marijuana by rousing political opposition.

Though there have been numerous scandals, including recent disclosures that the DEA allowed the Sinaloa cartel to import cocaine into the United States, Congressional oversight is nominal.

Leonhart’s speech last week to the National Sheriff’s Association rearranges this dynamic. It is a direct challenge to the authority of Congress and of the office of the President of the United States.

For drug policy reformers, this is a rare political opportunity. It is likely that news of this speech will give Congress a reason to be interested in who is running at the DEA, and it is unlikely that President Obama will tolerate direct insubordination by someone who serves at his pleasure. What matters now is the political calculus of the President’s response, and how drug policy reformers can influence that calculus.

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