During a speech to a conference of sheriffs in Washington, D.C., last week, Michele Leonhart, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), reportedly criticized President Obama for saying marijuana is safer than alcohol. Bristol County, Massachusetts, Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson gave this account to the Boston Herald:
She's frustrated for the same reasons we are. 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.
Kern County, California, Sheriff Donny Youngblood, president of the Major Counties Sheriffs' Association, the group Leonhart addressed, confirmed that she "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." He said she received a standing ovation.
For Leonhart to describe Obama's statement as unscientific is pretty rich. Like all of her predecessors, Leonhart has steadfastly refused to reclassify marijuana, which for no rational reason remains on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, a category supposedly reserved for drugs with a high potential for abuse that have no accepted medical applications and cannot be used safely, even under medical supervision. In response to questions from Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) in 2012, Leonhart famously declined to say whether marijuana was more or less dangerous than crack, heroin, or methamphetamine (which is actually less restricted), repeating the mantra that "all illegal drugs are bad." Mmmkay?
Leonhart's objection to the hemp flag reflects the DEA's unyielding opposition not only to marijuana itself but to anything associated with it. Although many countries manage to ban marijuana while allowing production of industrial hemp, which is not psychoactive, the DEA has always insisted those two policies cannot coexist, which is why the hemp for that flag had to be imported. The DEA's fear and loathing of anything it associates with cannabis culture explains its bizarre, lawless attempt to ban all edible hemp products (such as the hemp seeds and hemp oil you can buy at Costco). That anti-hemp crusade was ultimately blocked by a federal appeals court, which said it had no statutory basis, since the Controlled Substances Act specifically excludes hemp seeds from its definition of marijuana.
You can call Leonhart's revulsion at the thought of a hemp flag flying over the Capitol many things. But "scientific" is not one of them. Likewise, her refusal to concede that alcohol is more dangerous than marijuana has no scientific basis. Tellingly, Sheriff Youngblood calls Obama's statement about the two drugs' relative hazards "irresponsible" and offensive to drug warriors. He does not call it inaccurate.
Leonhart, of course, was Obama's pick to head the DEA, and he surely knew what he was getting, since she had been running the agency as acting administrator since November 2007 and had served as its deputy administrator before that. As acting administrator, she 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 monopoly, unique to marijuana, is even harder to defend than the drug's Schedule I status—which, by the way, Obama has the power to change without new legislation. It is fitting that Obama, having opted to stay the course in the war on drugs despite pre-election statements promising something else, has to endure sniping from the hardline prohibitionists he appointed now that has managed to utter an inconvenient truth.
Addendum: The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) is urging Obama to fire Leonhart. Dan Riffle, MPP's director of Federal Policies, says:
Whether Ms. Leonhart is ignorant of the facts or intentionally disregarding them, she is clearly unfit for her current position. By any objective measure, marijuana is less harmful than alcohol to the consumer and society. It is irresponsible and unacceptable for a government official charged with enforcing our drug laws to deny the facts surrounding the nation's two most popular recreational drugs.
The DEA administrator's continued refusal to recognize marijuana's relative safety compared to alcohol and other drugs flies in the face of the president's commitment to prioritizing science over ideology and politics. She is neglecting the basic obligations of her job and fundamentally undermining her employer's mission. This would be grounds for termination in the private sector, and the consequences for Ms. Leonhart should be no different.
I don't know about that. It seems to me Leonhart's refusal to discuss the relative hazards of different intoxicants and her outrage at symbols of dissent makes her well-suited to lead the war on drugs, an emotion-driven crusade that has always been at odds with the truth.
Addendum II: Rep. Polis observes that "many of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, grew hemp, and some of the first American flags were made of hemp." He wonders, "Is Michele Leonhart embarrassed by Betsy Ross, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington?"