This week, both chambers of Congress will hold major hearings on the drug war. On Tuesday, April 29, at 10am there will be joint subcommittee hearing entitled “Confronting Transnational Drug Smuggling: An Assessment of Regional Partnerships”, held by the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere and the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation. These Committees will hear from General John F. Kelly, USMC Commander of Southern Command, at the Department of Defense, and Luis E. Arreaga Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, at the Department of State. On Wednesday, April 30, at 10 am, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing entitled, “Oversight of the Drug Enforcement Administration”. The sole witness is the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Administrator Michele M. Leonhart.
The hearings come against a backdrop of huge domestic change with respect to the drug war. In the past year, Attorney General Eric Holder has made a number of forceful public statements against mass incarceration in the U.S., promising significant rollback of mandatory minimums and harsh sentencing guidelines. The Obama administration, under the Department of Justice, announced last week that clemency and pardon guidelines would be expanded so that they apply to more nonviolent drug offenders. Similarly, there is much hope that the Senate will pass the Smarter Sentencing Act this year, which would drastically reduce mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and make the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive. In addition, the Obama administration announced in August last year that it would not challenge state marijuana laws, thus giving a limited “green light” to states like Washington and Colorado to pursue legalization. More states have ballot initiatives to legalize marijuana this year.
In the first hearing, General John F. Kelly of SOUTHCOM will come under pressure to explain recent statements at a Senate hearing in March, when he said that his agency had only 5% of the assets it needed to perform drug interdiction duties in the Caribbean region, and that “Because of asset shortfalls, we’re unable to get after 74 percent of suspected maritime drug smuggling. I simply sit and watch it go by.” The call for more drug war funding has been viewed with much skepticism by experts, especially given DOD’s mammoth $1bn annual counternarcotics budget, as well as a General Kelly’s subsequent appearance at a press conference where it was announced that the flow of drugs from South America to the United States had dropped by 62 percent since 2012. Kelly also claimed that partners in Latin America were “in disbelief” about marijuana legalization in certain states in the U.S., and wanted to “stay shoulder to shoulder with us in the drug fight in their part of the world”, a statement that is contradicted by the fact that Uruguay has also recently legalized marijuana, and other countries like Colombia, and Guatemala, and Mexico – close allies of the U.S. – have all expressed a desire to pursue drug policy reform and end the drug war.
“I hope that the Committee members are smart enough to see through General Kelly’s statements,” said Michael Collins, policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance. “There is a lot of positive domestic change happening with respect to the drug war, but unfortunately that hasn’t filtered through to the foreign policy and defense establishment. I hope this hearing will serve to clarify that the U.S. is scaling down when it comes to the drug war, not ramping things up.”
In the second hearing, DEA chief Michele Leonhart will likely receive challenging questions from Senators about the DEA’s troubling role in the drug war. Last September, a broad coalition of groups, including ACLU, Drug Policy Alliance, and Witness for Peace, sent a letter to House and Senate Oversight Committees requesting an oversight hearing on the DEA. The letter cited concerns about the DEA’s use of NSA programs to make domestic drug convictions, its role in killings in Honduras, its intransigence on marijuana policy, and other issues. A similar letter will be sent to Senators Leahy and Grassley in advance of Wednesday’s hearing.
“The DEA is way out of step with the Obama administration – and out of step with public opinion,” added Collins. “This hearing is an opportunity to hold the DEA accountable for its longstanding pattern of troubling behavior. From the secret use of NSA programs to make domestic drug convictions, to the killings in Honduras, to the obstruction of science when it comes to medical marijuana, this agency appears to have an antiquated mentality.”