For those hoping that Barack Obama would wage the war on drugs less aggressively than his predecessor, this is not a good sign: Yesterday he announced that the new head of the Drug Enforcement Administration will be Michele Leonhart, a career DEA agent who has been the agency's deputy administrator since March 2004 and its acting administrator since November 2007. That means she oversaw all those gratuitous raids on medical marijuana providers in California, continuing well into the Obama administration despite his promised change of course.
Last February The Washington Times reported that Obama planned to suspend the DEA's raids once he "nominates someone to take charge of DEA, which is still run by Bush administration holdovers." Leonhart was the most conspicuous and important of those holdovers. The Times quoted a White House spokesman who said, "The president believes that federal resources should not be used to circumvent state laws, and as he continues to appoint senior leadership to fill out the ranks of the federal government, he expects them to review their policies with that in mind." Although that assurance did not, strictly speaking, constitute a promise to change the senior leadership at the DEA, that's the way it sounded. Now what? It certainly seems implausible that the hard-line drug warrior who was all for circumventing state medical marijuana laws when she was only the acting DEA administrator will have a change of heart now that her position is more secure. And as I've noted before, the Justice Department's new policy of leaving medical marijuana growers and distributors alone if they "are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws" leaves a lot of wiggle room for someone like Leonhart.
That's not to say there is no practical difference between Obama and Bush on drug policy. The combination of Obama and a Democrat-controlled Congress has brought substantial improvement in the area of sentencing reform, and this administration may yet prove more tolerant of medical marijuana. One hopeful sign, in addition to the Justice Department's official policy shift, is that Congress finally let Washington, D.C., implement its medical marijuana law. The Obama administration also seems more willing to let neighboring countries move in a less punitive direction without raising a fuss. Still, articles like this one in the London Independent—headlined "US Waves White Flag in Disastrous 'War on Drugs'"—are a bit premature.
Addendum: Dale Gieringer of California NORML reminds me that it was Leonhart who overruled a DEA administrative law judge's recommendation that University of Massachusetts at Amherst scientists be allowed to produce marijuana for research, a function currently monopolized by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which is more interested in showing how dangerous marijuana is than in exploring its medical utility. That decision really marks Leonhart as an extremist. "If there's one thing on which supporters and critics of medical marijuana agree," says Gieringer, "it's the need for [FDA-approved] studies."
[Thanks to LEAP's Tom Angell for the tip.]