01/28/2014 12:59 pm ET Updated Mar 30, 2014

DEA Chief Needs to Cut the Propaganda or Step Down


Last week, President Obama made his most positive statements on marijuana policy reform yet, admitting that the drug is no more dangerous than alcohol and saying it's "important for [legalization] to go forward" in Colorado and Washington. While some praised his remarks and others questioned why it took so long to admit what 87 percent of Americans already recognize, DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart made headlines with her critical and nonsensical response. This is just the most recent statement in a decades-long history of propaganda from the agency, and Leonhart should either stop peddling misinformation or step down.

Leonhart's biggest criticism, made in a speech at the Major Counties Sheriffs' Association's annual meeting, was that she "felt the administration didn't understand the science enough to make those statements." This would be a ridiculous charge from anyone, but is particularly laughable coming from the head of the DEA. Despite the agency's efforts to prevent scientific research on marijuana, there is a growing body of evidence that shows marijuana has a much lower potential than alcohol for overdose, addiction, violence, and many other harms.

Yet the DEA has always ignored facts that support reforming drug laws, even when they come from within the agency. In 1988, DEA Judge Young ruled that "the evidence ... clearly shows that marijuana has been accepted as capable of relieving the distress of great numbers of very ill people" and that it would be "unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious" for the DEA to continue fighting laws to allow its use. Rather than accept this, then-Administrator John Lawn overturned the ruling and doubled down on the agency's opposition to medical marijuana.

Leonhart has carried on Lawn's legacy with a similar unwillingness to acknowledge basic scientific facts about the drugs her agency imprisons people for. At a House Judiciary Committee hearing in June 2012, Rep. Jared Polis asked Leonhart whether crack, meth, or heroin are worse for someone's health than marijuana. Instead of replying that marijuana is clearly far safer than these three drugs, she refused to answer directly, simply saying "all illegal drugs are bad." Given this, it's no surprise she balked at Obama's admission that it's not only safer than heroin, but the highly popular -- and legal -- alcohol.

That wasn't her only embarrassment at the hearing. After she dodged Polis' questions about drugs' relative harms, Rep. Steve Cohen told Leonhart about a Navy Seal he knew who used medical marijuana to increase his appetite and deal with other side effects of cancer treatment. She replied that she thought that should be "between him and his doctor," completely contradicting her agency's obstinate official stance that marijuana has no medical benefits.

Despite her notoriety, Leonhart isn't the only DEA official lying at Congressional hearings. Earlier this month, DEA operations chief James Capra told members of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control that marijuana legalization is "reckless and irresponsible," claiming "in every part of the world where this experiment has been tried, it has failed time and time again." This couldn't be farther from the truth, as what Colorado and Washington are doing is completely unprecedented. Since marijuana prohibition first spread across the world at the United States' urging, no jurisdiction has ever re-legalized it -- even famously marijuana-friendly Amsterdam only allows the sale of up to 5 grams of the drug, and cultivating any amount is still illegal.

The DEA needs to stop opposing common sense drug policy reforms like marijuana legalization and the decriminalization of other drugs, which would actually help the agency by letting it focus its limited resources on more serious problems. By moving marijuana distribution into the open, legalization will allow sellers to settle disputes in court rather than through violence, while testing and labeling will minimize health risks to users. The head of New Jersey's Senate Judiciary Committee had it right when he said, "the only people who should be against [marijuana legalization] are the drug dealers."

If Leonhart and the DEA finally cut the propaganda, maybe the nation will be able to make some serious inroads on drug abuse. Over 80 percent of Americans think the Drug War has failed, and similar numbers support basic reforms like allowing medical marijuana and ending jail time for marijuana possession. DEA Administrator Leonhart should cease her agency's Reefer Madness-era objections to these common sense measures. If she doesn't, President Obama should consider a change in the DEA's leadership -- something many advocates are already pushing for.