DEA Head Warns of Risks of Marijuana Legalization, Supports Mandatory Minimum Sentences

by Phillip Smith
May. 01, 2014

DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday to warn of the dangers of marijuana legalization and affirm her support for mandatory minimum sentences.

Her testimony put her increasingly at odds with the administration that employs her. The Obama administration has made clear that it is not going to interfere with legal marijuana in states that have approved it—unless some of its eight listed enforcement priorities are in play—and it has made it clear that it views mandatory minimum sentencing as a failed policy.

Leonhart mentioned two of the enforcement priorities—the leakage of marijuana to non-legal states and the use of the herb by minors—in her statement to the committee. She said she is worried by an increase in marijuana trafficking in states surrounding Colorado and that the same thing could happen in Washington state. She also worried that increasing acceptance of marijuana would lead to increased use.

"The trends are what us in law enforcement had expected would happen," she said. "In 2012, 438,000 Americans were addicted to heroin. And 10 times that number were dependent on marijuana." But she did not provide any evidence tying the number of marijuana users to changing attitudes or laws.

The DEA is indeed concerned about marijuana legalization. Three months ago, DEA chief of operations James Capra called legalization in the states reckless and irresponsible and warned of looming disaster.

"It scares us," Capra said during a Senate hearing in January. "Every part of the world where this has been tried, it has failed time and time again."

Except that marijuana legalization has never been tried anywhere before Uruguay, Colorado, and Washington made the leap too recently to cite. In the Netherlands, where authorities turn a blind eye to sales at cannabis coffee shops and which is often cited as an example of "legalization," life goes on and marijuana use rates are well with European norms.

Leonhart continued singing the same old tune Wednesday, warning that emergency room visits related to marijuana increased by 28% between 2007 and 2011.

ER visits may be up, but it’s the quality, not just the quantity that also matters. Marijuana has no overdose potential; most marijuana-related ER visits are panic attacks or anxiety reactions, not life-threatening events.

Leonhart also had kind words for mandatory minimums, even though her immediate boss, Attorney General Eric Holder has said they create cruel, disproportionate punishments and contribute to federal prison overcrowding.

"Having been in law enforcement as an agent for 33 years [and] a Baltimore City police officer before that, I can tell you that for me and for the agents that work at the DEA, mandatory minimums have been very important to our investigations," said Leonhart, in response to a question from Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa). "We depend on those as a way to ensure that the right sentences equate the level of violator we are going after."

Leonhart is a holdover from the Bush administration. It is unclear how long she can continue to fit in under an Obama administration that is moving forward on drug policy reform.

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