The head of America’s top drug-war agency is stepping down, forced out by scandals and poor relations with her bosses.

Michele Leonhart
Michele Leonhart

Michelle Leonhart will resign as administrator of the Drug Enforcement Agency effective in mid-May, Attorney General Eric Holder said in April. Leonhart offered her resignation amid a growing scandal involving exorbitant international “sex parties” thrown for DEA agents by high-ranking drug traffickers.

Both President Barack Obama and Congress have made it clear in recent weeks that they no longer support her management of the agency. An investigation by the inspector general for the Justice Department found endemic corruption in the DEA and a pervasive “good old boy” culture.

Leonhart did not punish crooked agents

Leonhart apparently enabled that culture by refusing to punish crooked agents. More importantly, she repeatedly rebuffed orders from Obama and Holder, including a directive to back off medical marijuana providers in states where it’s legal.

Instead, Leonhart continued her crusade against MMJ patients and providers. Along with federal prosecutors, she has used her power to shut down dispensaries and throw their operators in jail. Holder’s announcement made no mention of weed or Leonhart’s role in punishing those who use it, but cannabis proponents jumped on her departure as a chance for change at the top.

“I encourage the president to use this as an opportunity to fill this important role with someone who understands the outdated federal approach to marijuana isn’t working,” said U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, Democrat of Oregon. “The American public has moved on. Most now feel marijuana should be legalized.”

Liberals pushing Obama to fill position with someone supporting reform

It’s not yet clear if Obama has a replacement in mind, but his choice could dramatically alter the landscape of drug policy in America. Liberals and pot advocates pushed the president to appoint an administrator who will accept and carry out reforms passed by Congress.

DEA Baseball CapLawmakers approved bills late last year that are supposed to protect patients and providers from arrest and prosecution in states where MMJ is allowed. But the Department of Justice insists the law doesn’t prevent it from doing those things because they don’t “interfere” with state-level medical cannabis laws. The lawmakers who wrote the bill strongly reject that claim.

It also isn’t clear that anyone Obama puts in Leonhart’s place will be able to overcome the same pervasive culture of corruption, entitlement, and greed that currently fuels the DEA. The agency is staffed to its core with battle-hardened drug warriors who see legalization as capitulation.

But if the president can get a reformer into the job, life for America’s stoners could rapidly improve. Most voters now want to legalize recreational pot, while massive majorities back medical marijuana.


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