A senior White House official has said that the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Michele Leonhart, is expected to resign soon. The news comes as no surprise to drug policy reformers who say her opposition to reform made her out of step with the Obama Administration.
“Leonhart’s DEA reflects an outdated, disastrous approach that President Obama claims he wants to leave behind,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “If she leaves he has an opportunity to appoint someone who will overhaul the DEA and support drug policy reform.”
The federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has existed for more than 40 years, but little attention has been given to the role the agency has played in fueling mass incarceration, racial disparities and other drug war problems. Congress has rarely scrutinized the agency, its actions or its budget, instead deferring to DEA Administrators on how best to deal with drug-related issues. That changed, however, in part because of all the scandals and corruption that have occurred under DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart.
To provide context for Leonhart’s resignation, DPA is releasing a new issue brief today, The Scandal-Ridden DEA: Everything You Need to Know, which includes recommendations for fundamental reforms of the DEA.
According to a recently released Justice Department report, several DEA agents (some with top secret clearances) allegedly participated in multiple orgies with hired sex workers “funded by the local drug cartels” in Colombia. Some also received money, gifts and weapons from these traffickers. The parties occurred at the agents’ “government-leased quarters”, where laptops and other equipment were accessible – raising “the possibility that DEA equipment and information also may have been compromised as a result of the agents’ conduct.” The report also found that the DEA obstructed the investigations into this and other scandals.
After Leonhart’s horrible performance in Congress during a hearing focused on the sex scandal the House Oversight Committee issued a bipartisan statement of “no confidence” in her leadership. Leonhart was widely panned and her answers deemed inadequate during testimony on her agency’s handling of sexual harassment and misconduct allegations. When asked by reporters the White Housedeclined to offer a vote of confidence in Leonhart. In fact, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that President Obama is concerned by “troubling details” about the Colombia scandal and the DEA’s response to it.
The call to dismiss Leonhart came against a backdrop of scandals and incompetence at the DEA, which have dominated Leonhart’s tenure. A Drug Policy Alliance petition to President Obama calling for Leonhart to be fired garnered almost 11,000 signatures in a week.
Some of the more egregious incidents during Leonhart’s tenure include:
- The Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General currently has six open investigations into numerous DEA scandals, including the massacre of civilians in Honduras, the use of NSA data to both spy on virtually all Americans and to systematically fabricate evidence, and controversial uses of confidential informants.
- A series of recent investigations by USA Today found that the DEA has been tracking billions of U.S. phone calls without warrants or even suspicion of wrong-doing, an operation copied by the NSA and other agencies after 9/11. The DEA built the modern surveillance state.
- DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart herself has been at the center of several scandals, including the House of Death scandal in which the DEA may have turned a blind eye to torture and murder, and the Andrew Chambers scandal, in which the DEA rehired a confidential informant with a history of lying.
- DEA conflicts with Obama administration policy. Last year, Leonhart publicly rebuked President Obama for admitting that marijuana is as safe as alcohol, told members of Congress that the DEA will continue to go after marijuana even in states where it is legal despite DOJ guidance stating otherwise, and spoke out against bipartisan drug sentencing reform in Congress that the Obama administration is supporting.
- Last May, The DEA created a political firestorm this week when it seized seeds bound for a Kentucky hemp research program that was approved by Congress. Then Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) called the incident “an outrage” and the Kentucky Agriculture Department sued the DEA.
- The DEA’s refusal to acknowledge science. DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart has on several occasions ignored science and overruled the DEA’s own administrative law judges on medical issues relating to marijuana. In abizarre 2012 debate with members of Congress Leonhart refused repeatedly to acknowledge that marijuana is safer than cocaine and heroin.
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) and Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) have previously called on Leonhart to resign, with Polis commenting that he “found her to be completely incompetent and unknowledgeable.” The Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) said last week, “It’s time for her to go…I don’t have confidence in her, nor does the majority of the committee.” He went on to say that if Leonhart does not step down, then President Obama should fire her.
“The DEA is a large, expensive, scandal-prone bureaucracy that has failed to reduce drug-related problems,” said Piper. “Drug use should be treated as a health issue instead of a criminal justice issue; with states legalizing marijuana and adopting other drug policy reforms it is time to ask if the agency is even needed anymore.”