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DEA Marijuana Seizures Nearly Double As Marijuana Production in Mexico Grows by 35%

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                                                                     

March 3, 2010

DEA Marijuana Seizures Nearly Double As Marijuana Production in Mexico Grows by 35%

Officials continue to waste money on futile attempts to stem production and violence, ignoring the only solution: a regulated marijuana market

CONTACT: Aaron Houston, MPP director of government relations …… 202-905-2009 or ahouston@mpp.org

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The total amount of marijuana seized by the Drug Enforcement Administration nearly doubled from 1,539 metric tons in 2008 to 2,980 metric tons in 2009, according to numbers disclosed by the DEA as part of their budget request for 2011.

         Meanwhile, the cultivation of marijuana in Mexico rose 35% in 2009 to nearly 30,000 acres, according to a report released by the U.S. State Department. The report also revealed that between $8 and $25 billion in drug profits were laundered by Mexican drug lords during the same period.

         “When is the United States government going to realize that they will never eliminate the demand for marijuana, but they can regulate its production?” said Aaron Houston, MPP director of government relations. “These latest numbers confirm that the only thing an increase in the amount of marijuana seizures by the DEA will do is force more marijuana to be grown by gangs in Mexico, lining the pockets of drug cartels, and further fueling the bloodshed along our border and in our respective countries. The only real solution to this crisis is to tax and regulate marijuana.”

         These latest figures come just days after high-ranking officials from the U.S. and Mexico concluded a three-day conference meant to outline ways the two nations could reduce the illicit drug-trade-associated violence that continues to plague the U.S.-Mexican border. Unfortunately, the obvious and sensible strategy of taxing and regulating marijuana was not mentioned. The Obama administration instead opted to throw more money at the problem in the form of a $1.4 billion aid package to combat Mexican drug cartels. The Obama administration is also seeking $310 million in its 2011 budget for drug enforcement aid to Mexico. 

         With more than 124,000 members and supporters nationwide, the Marijuana Policy Project is the largest marijuana policy reform organization in the United States. MPP believes that the best way to minimize the harm associated with marijuana is to regulate marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol. For more information, please visit mpp.org.

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Medical Marijuana: US Congressman Protests Colorado DEA Raids in Letter to Holder, Obama

(Commentary on this late-breaking important news item is reprinted from our blog in order to include it in this week's issue. Come back for next week's Chronicle for a news report on it, and visit The Speakeasy to read Scott Morgan's commentary on a daily basis.)

The DEA's recent tough-guy tactics in Colorado aren't winning them any friends in the press, the public, or even in politics. Colorado Congressman Jared Polis sent a scathing letter to Attorney General Holder and President Obama demanding that DEA be required to uphold the administration's policy of respecting medical marijuana laws. Here it is in part:

Despite these formal guidelines, Friday, February 12, 2010, agents from the US Department of Justice's Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) raided the home of medical marijuana caregiver Chris Bartkowicz in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. In a news article in the Denver Post the next day, the lead DEA agent in the raid, Jeffrey Sweetin, claimed "We're still going to continue to investigate and arrest people... Technically, every dispensary in the state is in blatant violation of federal law," he said. "The time is coming when we go into a dispensary, we find out what their profit is, we seize the building and we arrest everybody. They're violating federal law; they're at risk of arrest and imprisonment."

Agent Sweetin's comment that "we arrest everybody" is of great concern to me and to the people of Colorado, who overwhelmingly voted to allow medical marijuana. Coloradans suffering from debilitating medical conditions, many of them disabled, elderly, veterans, or otherwise vulnerable people, have expressed their concern to me that the DEA will come into medical marijuana dispensaries, which are legal under Colorado law, and "arrest everybody" present. Although Agent Sweetin reportedly has backed away from his comments, he has yet to issue a written clarification or resign, thus the widespread panic in Colorado continues.

On May 14, 2009, Mr. Kerlikowske told the Wall Street Journal: "Regardless of how you try to explain to people it's a 'war on drugs' or a 'war on a product,' people see a war as a war on them," he said. "We're not at war with people in this country." The actions and commentary of Mr. Sweetin are inconsistent with the idea of not waging war against the people of the State of Colorado and are a contradiction to your agency's laudable policies. [Westword]

Right on. We're witnessing a conspicuous disruption of the White House's carefully crafted effort to reduce controversy in the war on drugs, and it's clear that the silence must soon be broken in Washington. It's easy to say "we're not at war," but until you order the soldiers under your command to lay down their arms, it won't be possible to sugarcoat any of this.

Feature: Federal Medical Marijuana Raids in Colorado -- Is the Denver DEA Going Rogue?

Colorado's burgeoning medical marijuana community is up in arms after a series of DEA raids in recent weeks. First, DEA agents hit medical marijuana laboratories in Denver and Colorado Springs that tested for THC levels and contaminants such as mold. Then, late last week, DEA agents raided and arrested Highland Park medical marijuana grower Chris Bartkowicz after he appeared in local media talking about his grow operation.

http://stopthedrugwar.com/files/colorado-certificate.jpg
Colorado medical marijuana certificate (courtesy cannabisculture.com)
While no charges have been filed against the lab operators, Colorado US Attorney David Gaoutte announced Tuesday that he would prosecute Bartkowicz, who now faces up to 40 years in federal prison for his efforts. The pattern is similar to that seen previously in California, where DEA often raided dispensaries, but federal prosecutors only prosecuted some of those raided.

The DEA actions appear to fly in the face of Obama campaign promises to stop the raids. Those promises were, the medical marijuana community thought, kept when Attorney General Eric Holder issued a Department of Justice memorandum instructing federal officials to lay off medical marijuana in states where it is legal -- unless the provider is violating both state and federal law. That memo went out to all US Attorneys, as well as acting DEA administrator Michele Leonhart, who has since been nominated to be the permanent administrator of the agency.

The October Justice Department memo said the feds should not go after people in "clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana." The memo said nothing about "large grows" or testing labs not being included.

Denver DEA Special Agent in Charge (SAC) Jeffrey Sweetin at first sounded as if he had missed the memo. In an interview last Saturday with the Denver Post he threatened to go after the state's rapidly increasing number of medical marijuana dispensaries. "Technically, every dispensary in the state is in blatant violation of federal law," he said. "The time is coming when we go into a dispensary, we find out what their profit is, we seize the building and we arrest everybody. They're violating federal law; they're at risk of arrest and imprisonment."

In an interview with Denver's TV 9 News, Sweetin carried on in the same vein, saying that even though state law allows for medical marijuana, federal law does not. "We will continue to enforce the federal law. That's what we are paid to do," he said.

Sweetin said the Justice Department guidelines give him discretion. "Discretion is: I can't send my DEA agents out on 10-plant grows. I'm not interested in that, it's not what we do. We work criminal organizations that are enterprises generating funds by distributing illegal substances," Sweetin said.

By Tuesday, though, Sweetin was singing a slightly different tune in an interview with Westword. "We are not declaring war on dispensaries," he said -- though he added with a laugh, "If we were declaring war on dispensaries, they would not be hard to find. You can't swing a dead cat around here without hitting thirty of them."

Sweetin also took a pot shot at Denver medical marijuana attorney Robert Corry, who filed a complaint with the Department of Justice inspector general's office alleging waste, fraud, abuse, and misconduct against the department and the DEA. The complaint asks the inspector general to sanction Sweetin and the other agents involved.

People like Corry and others critical of the raids are doing people a disservice, Sweetin said. "I think the people who claim to represent marijuana growers in this state are trying to create this fear, and I think that's sad," he said without a trace of irony.

The question facing Colorado's medical marijuana community is whether Sweetin has gone off the reservation or whether the raids represent a shift in the Obama administration's approach to medical marijuana in the states where it is legal.

"It's hard to say whether it's a rogue law enforcement effort limited to Colorado or whether we have something to worry about in regards to not keeping the promise made by the Justice Department memo last October," said Kris Hermes, spokesman for the medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access. "It's worth noting that two days before the first lab raid that President Obama nominated Michele Leonhart to head DEA. She's already acting administrator, a holdover from the Bush administration, but it was alarming to activists and advocates to find out we were going to get more of the same. She was the deputy administrator under Karen Tandy when the DEA carried out more than 200 aggressive raids against the people of California," he said.

"It seems like a rogue office," said Brian Vicente, leader of the marijuana law reform group Sensible Colorado. "Sweetin is saying marijuana is not a medicine as if he were a doctor, and the US Attorney is following his lead to prosecute the providers. This is very concerning. Sweetin has long been an absolute enemy of marijuana, and now, an enemy of Colorado voters, who voted for medical marijuana."

"Hopefully, this is just an instance of rogue law enforcement, and Obama and Holder will rein it in, but we're not waiting to find out," Hermes said. "We are right now preparing an alert to members to write to the administration expressing their frustration with the DEA's apparent failure to comply with Justice Department policy."

Vicente and dozens of other Sensible Colorado members and medical marijuana patients spent part of Thursday protesting the raids in front of the building where President Obama happened to be making an appearance. "There were probably 75 of us protesting and handing out literature aimed at alerting Obama to these rogue actions and calling on him to tell these agents to quit going after our patients and providers," he said. "We handed out flyers to everyone in the 1,000-person line waiting to get into the event, and we got considerable press coverage."

The Colorado medical marijuana movement is also gearing up against the looming threat, said Vicente. "We're working with a number of local and national groups to establish a firm emergency response plan like they did in California," he said. "We're somewhat fearful that Colorado may become a new DEA focus, and we want to be an organized presence."

As for grower Bartkowicz, who now faces federal drug dealing charges, his case should be dealt with in the state courts, not the federal courts, said Vicente. "We're not sure if he was or wasn't in compliance with state law, but we think the only place where that question could be fairly litigated is state court. The federal courts don't even recognize medical marijuana and are thus unequipped to determine if someone is in compliance with state law. We are asking them to drop the federal charges and let the state courts sort it out."

"I've seen no evidence of a violation of state law," said Hermes. "If there is no violation of state law, defense attorneys should be able to go to federal court and point to the memo and say the Justice Department should comply. The spirit of the policy is to stay out of enforcement when people are complying with state law. By that token, no federal charges should have been filed."

The war over medical marijuana is far from over. But now, it looks like the new battlefield could be Colorado.

Action #3: Stop the DEA raids!

Dear friends,

Last month, President Obama nominated Acting DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart to formally head the DEA.  Previously, Leonhart was the DEA's Deputy Administrator during a time of more than 200 federal medical marijuana raids in California.

In the two weeks following Leonhart's promotion, the DEA just raided two Colorado medical marijuana laboratories that tested the quality of medical marijuana sold in the state.  Meanwhile, local and federal officials were complaining that medical marijuana needed to be better tested.   On February 12th, the DEA raided a Colorado medical marijuana cultivator.

Four months ago, the US Department of Justice issued a new directive ending the Bush Administration policy of aggressively raiding distribution sites. The new policy discouraged the arrest and prosecution of state-law compliant dispensaries.

Is the DEA ignoring this Obama Administration directive?  Please urge U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the DEA to end arrests and prosecutions in medical marijuana states.

Click here to take action:

http://www.americansforsafeaccess.org/dea

Thanks -

The ASA Team

Americans for Safe Access

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DEA Backs Down After Threatening Colorado Dispensaries

Jeffrey Sweetin of the DEA's Denver office on Saturday:

"Technically, every dispensary in the state is in blatant violation of federal law," he said. "The time is coming when we go into a dispensary, we find out what their profit is, we seize the building and we arrest everybody. They're violating federal law; they're at risk of arrest and imprisonment." [Denver Post]

Jeff Sweetin today:

"We are not declaring war on dispensaries," he says -- though he adds with a laugh, "If we were declaring war on dispensaries, they would not be hard to find. You can't swing a dead cat around here without hitting thirty of them."

Sweetin makes note of the fact that the DEA hasn't ever shut down a Colorado dispensary, and the agency doesn't plan on doing so unless there are aggravating factors involved -- like violence, ties to drug cartels or distribution to children. [Westword]

It sounds an awful lot like Sweetin's comments over the weekend may have resulted in somebody important telling him to calm the hell down. What goes on behind the scenes with this stuff is a mystery to me, but I doubt Sweetin figured out on his own that those nasty comments about raiding dispensaries weren't playing well in the press. I'd prefer to think maybe he got a quick phone call from Washington.

The DOJ's "official" policy of respecting state medical marijuana laws is hardly written in stone, leaving more than enough room for a nut like Sweetin to make a big mess provided that nobody yanks his leash. But if one thing is clear about medical marijuana policy under Obama, it's that they have no interest in doing battle with the 80% of Americans who support it. This latest episode isn't the first time one of the President's drug warriors has back-pedaled after making a stupid public comment about medical marijuana. There are new rules in place, and while they still leave much to be desired, it's important to appreciate the extent to which the old smash and grab medical marijuana policy has been put in check.

The point here isn’t that Obama loves medical marijuana, or that the DEA can now be counted on to behave itself. Politicians and drug war soldiers don't change overnight, but the mere expectation that the raids have ended can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy when the media and the public generally believe such activity is now illegal in addition to being unpopular. Imagine trying to convict a medical marijuana defendant in federal court in the current political climate. If you lose, the Dept. of Justice will look impotent during a period of surging marijuana entrepreneurship, and if you win, Obama will get skewered in the press.

So if rogue DEA officials still feel compelled to go around making angry threats in the newspaper, I say bring it on. The war on medical marijuana gets less popular every time they open their mouths.

DEA Raids Legal Grower in Colorado, Threatens to Target Dispensaries

For the second time in as many weeks, DEA agents in Colorado raided a medical marijuana operation last Thursday. Highland Park medical marijuana patient and provider Chris Bartkowiscz had been seen showing off his basement garden Tuesday night in a blurb for an upcoming local news report. On Thursday, the DEA raided him, seizing his plants and growing equipment. Bartkowiscz has been jailed pending a decision from the US Attorney's Office on whether to charge him. That decision could come tomorrow. This despite last October's Department of Justice memorandum instructing federal agencies to lay off medical marijuana in states where it is legal—unless the provider is violating both state and federal law. DEA Denver Special Agent in Charge (SAC) Jeffrey Sweetin apparently didn't get the memo. Either that, or he is blatantly thumbing his nose at his bosses, the American attorney general and president. In a Saturday interview with local TV 9 News, Sweetin said that even though state law allows for medical marijuana, federal law does not. "We will continue to enforce the federal law. That's what we are paid to do," he said. Sweetin said the Justice Department guidelines give him discretion. "Discretion is: I can't send my DEA agents out on 10-plant grows. I'm not interested in that, it's not what we do. We work criminal organizations that are enterprises generating funds by distributing illegal substances," Sweetin said. Sweetin left open the door to go after medical marijuana dispensaries. "Technically, every dispensary in the state is in blatant violation of federal law. The time is coming when we go into a dispensary, we find out what their profit is, we seize the building and we arrest everybody. They're violating federal law; they're at risk of arrest and imprisonment," he told the http://www.thedenverchannel.com/news/22561621/detail.html " target=_blank_>Denver Post. "Technically, every dispensary in the state is in blatant violation of federal law." The October Justice Department memo said the feds should not go after people in "clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana." The memo said nothing about "large grows" or dispensaries not be included. Denver medical marijuana attorney Robert Corry is waiting to see whether the feds will charge Bartkowiscz. On Saturday, he filed a complaint with the Justice Department against Sweetin and the DEA, saying the raid on Bartkowiscz violated the agency's policy on enforcing drug laws in states that allow medical marijuana. Has Sweetin gone rogue? Or is the Obama administration retreating from the position staked out in the October memo? Stay tuned.
Location: 
Denver, CO
United States

Feature: Obama Seeks Increase in Drug War Spending in a Drug Budget on Autopilot

The Obama administration released its Fiscal Year 2011 budget proposal this week, including the federal drug control budget. On the drug budget, the Obama administration is generally following the same course as the Bush administration and appears to be flying on autopilot.

According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office), the administration is requesting $15.5 billion for drug control, an increase of 3.5% over the current budget. Drug law enforcement funding would grow from $9.7 billion this year to $9.9 billion in 2011, an increase of 5.2%. Demand side measures, such as prevention and treatment, also increased from $5.2 billion this year to $5.6 billion next year.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/drugwarbudget-medium.jpg
The $15.5 billion dollar drug budget actually undercounts the real cost of the federal drug war by failing to include some significant drug policy-driven costs. For instance, operations for the federal Bureau of Prisons are budgeted at $8.3 billion for 2011. With more than half of all federal prisoners serving time for drug offenses, the real cost of current drug policies should increase by at least $4 billion, but only $79 million of the prisons budget is counted as part of the national drug strategy budget.

The Obama drug budget largely maintains the roughly two-to-one imbalance between spending on treatment and prevention and spending on law enforcement. Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske called the imbalanced budget "balanced."

Highlights and lowlights:

  • Funding for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration prevention programs (SAMHSA) is set at $254.2 million, up $29.6 million from this year, while funding for SAMHSA treatment programs is set at $635.4 million, up $101.2 million from this year.
  • Funding for ONDCP's Drug Free Communities program is set at $85.5 million, down $9.5 million from this year.
  • Funding for the widely challenged National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign is set at $66.5 million, an increase of more than 50% over this year.
  • The Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring II program (ADAM) is funded at $10 million. It got no money this year.
  • Funding for the Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment program is set at $1.799 billion, the same as this year.
  • Funding for the Second Chance Act for reintegrating people completing prison sentences is set at $50 million, a whopping 66% increase over this year.
  • Funding for the Justice Department's Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force is set at $579.3 million, up $50.8 million over this year.
  • Funding for the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) program is set at $210 million, down $29 million from this year.
  • Funding for the Defense Department's counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan is set at $501.5 billion, up about one-third over this year.
  • Funding for State Department counternarcotics activities in West Africa is set at $13.2 million, up $10 million from this year.
  • Funding for State Department counternarcotics activities in Colombia is set at $178.6 million, down $26.6 million from this year.
  • Funding for the DEA is set at $2.131 billion, up 5.5% over this year. That pays for 8,399 employees, 4,146 of whom are DEA agents.
  • Funding for the Office of Justice Programs' Byrne grant program, Southwest Border Prosecutor Initiative, Northern Border Prosecutor Initiative, and Prescription Drug Monitoring program has been eliminated.

"The new budget proposal demonstrates the Obama administrations' commitment to a balanced and comprehensive drug strategy," said Kerlikowske. "In a time of tight budgets and fiscal restraint, these new investments are targeted at reducing Americans' drug use and the substantial costs associated with the health and social consequences of drug abuse."

Drug reformers tended to disagree with Kerlikowske's take on the budget. "This is certainly not change we can believe in," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "It's extremely similar to the Bush administration drug budgets, especially in terms of supply side versus demand side. In that respect, it's extremely disappointing. There's nothing innovative there."

"This budget reflects the same Bush-era priorities that led to the total failure of American drug policy during the last decade," said Aaron Houston, director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project. "One of the worst examples is $66 million requested for the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign when every independent study has called it a failure. The president is throwing good money after bad when what we really need is a new direction."

Houston also took umbrage with the accounting legerdemain that continues to allow ONDCP to understate the real cost of federal drug policies. "It's disconcerting to see the Obama administration employ the same tactics in counting the drug budget that the Bush administration did," said Houston. "Congress told ONDCP in 2006 to stop excluding certain items from the budget, and we had a Democratic committee chairman excoriate John Walters over his cooking of the books, but it doesn't appear they've done anything to stop that. Maybe they have to cook the books to make this look like a successful program."

But reformers also noted that some good drug policy news had already come out of the Obama administration. They also suggested that the real test of Obama's direction in drug policy would come in March, when Kerlikowske releases the annual national drug control strategy.

"I'm a little disappointed," said Keith Stroup, founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, "but I think there is a significant difference in the environment from the Bush years. Maybe not in this budget, but things like issuing those Department of Justice regulations on medical marijuana have made a major difference."

"They are unwilling or unable to change the drug war budget, but the true measure of their commitment to a shift in drug policy will be the national drug control strategy that comes out in a few weeks," said Piper. "The question is will their drug strategy look like Bush's and like their drug budget does, or will they articulate a new approach to drug policy more in line with the president's comments on the campaign trail that drug use should be treated as a public health issue, not a criminal justice one."

The Obama administration's decision to not interfere with medical marijuana in the states was one example of a paradigm shift, said Piper. So was its support for repealing the federal needle exchange funding ban and ending the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses.

"In a lot of ways, the budget trimming that comes out of the White House is a fraud because they know Congress won't make those cuts," said Piper. "I wonder if that's the game Obama is playing with the Byrne grants. That's the kind of thing they can articulate in the drug strategy if they wanted to. They should at least talk about the need to shift from the supply side to the demand side approach. They could even admit that this year's budget does not reflect that, but still call for it."

This is only the administration's budget request, of course. What it will look like by the time Congress gets through with it is anybody's guess. But it strongly suggests that, so far, there's not that much new under the sun in the Obama White House when it comes to the drug budget.

Feature: Obama Nominates Drug Warrior Michele Leonhart to Head DEA -- Reformers Gird for Battle

The Obama administration announced this week that it is nominating acting DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart to head the agency. Drug reformers responded with a collective groan and are preparing to challenge -- or at least question -- her nomination when it goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee for confirmation.

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/micheleleonhart.jpg
Michele Leonhart
From a law enforcement perspective, Leonhart's career trajectory has been inspiring and exemplary. Growing up black in St. Paul, she developed an interest in law enforcement when someone stole her bicycle as a young girl. After graduating from college with a degree in criminal justice, she worked as a police officer in Baltimore before joining the DEA in 1980. She put in stints as a field agent in Minneapolis and St. Louis before being promoting to DEA's supervisory ranks in San Diego in 1988. She became the agency's first female Special Agent in Charge (SAC) there and later became SAC for the DEA's Los Angeles field division, the third largest in the country. She was confirmed as DEA deputy administrator in 2003 and named acting administrator upon the resignation of agency head Karen Tandy in 2007, a position she has held ever since.

But Leonhart's career has also coincided with scandal and controversy. (A tip of the hat here to Pete Guither at Drug War Rant, who profiled her peccadillos in an August 2003 piece). Her time in St. Louis coincided with a perjuring informant scandal, her time in Los Angeles coincided with the beginning of the federal war against California's medical marijuana law, and as acting administrator, she blocked researchers from being able to grow their own marijuana for medical research, effectively blocking the research. As head of the DEA last year, Leonhart (or her staff) spent more than $123,000 of taxpayer money to charter a private plane for a trip to Colombia, rather than using one of the 106 airplanes the DEA already owned.

While Leonhart's role in the persecution of California medical marijuana patients and providers is drawing the most heat, it is her association with one-time DEA supersnitch Andrew Chambers that is raising the most eyebrows. Chambers earned an astounding $2.2 million for his work as a DEA informant between 1984 and 2000. The problem was that he was caught perjuring himself repeatedly. The US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals called him a liar in 1993, and the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals echoed that verdict two years later.

But instead of terminating its relationship with Chambers, the DEA protected him, failing to notify prosecutors and defense attorneys about his record. At one point, DEA and the Justice Department for 17 months stalled a public defender seeking to examine the results of DEA's background check on Chambers. Even after the agency knew its snitch was rotten, it refused to stop using Chambers, and it took the intervention of then Attorney General Janet Reno to force the agency to quit using him.

Michele Leonhart defended Chambers. When asked if, given his credibility problems, the agency should quit using him, she said, "That would be a sad day for DEA, and a sad day for anybody in the law enforcement world... He's one in a million. In my career, I'll probably never come across another Andrew."

Another Leonhart statement on Chambers is even more shocking, as much for what it says about Leonhart as for what Leonhart says about Chambers. "The only criticism (of Chambers) I've ever heard is what defense attorneys will characterize as perjury or a lie on the stand," she said, adding that once prosecutors check him out, they will agree with his DEA admirers that he is "an outstanding testifier."

While Chambers snitched for the DEA in St. Louis while Leonhart was there and snitched for the DEA in Los Angeles while Leonhart was there, the exact nature of any relationship between them is murky. Reformers suggest that perhaps the Judiciary Committee might be able to clear it up.

Leonhart was also there at the beginning of the federal assault on California's medical marijuana law. She stood beside US Attorney Michael Yamaguchi when he announced in a January 1998 press conference that the government would take action against medical marijuana clubs. And as SAC in Los Angeles up until 2004, she was the ranking DEA agent responsible for the numerous Bush administration raids against patients and providers.

Her apparent distaste for marijuana extended to researchers. In January 2009, she overruled a DEA administrative law judge and denied UMass Professor Lyle Craker the ability to grow marijuana for medical research.

And it wasn't just marijuana. She was in full drug warrior mode when she attacked ecstasy use at raves in 2001, telling the New York Times that "some of the dances in the desert are no longer just dances, they're like violent crack houses set to music."

Drug reformers responded to Leonhart's nomination with one word: disappointing.

"It's disappointing that we didn't see anyone other than a career narcotics officer and DEA employee get the nomination," said Allen St. Pierre of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). "But considering that his choice is a groundbreaker at DEA, perhaps there is a certain degree of political correctness for Obama. Leonhart is acceptable to conservatives because she comes from the DEA ranks, and at the same time, as a black woman who has risen from street officer to head of the DEA, she is certainly heralded by many in the Congressional Black Caucus."

"What a disappointment that was," said Dale Gieringer, head of California NORML. "We've been waiting for change ever since Obama got elected, we're still sitting here with the same Bush-appointed US Attorneys, we were hoping at least he would appoint a new DEA administrator, but no. That really shows political cowardice at the top level, I think."

"We're obviously very disappointed about this," said Aaron Houston, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project. "She presided over the worst abuses of the Bush administration raids against patients and providers, she presided over some of the worst periods of activity in Los Angeles as Special Agent in Charge, she rejected the Craker application, she doesn't have a clue about the fact that the Mexicans are begging us to change our drug laws."

"The Leonhart nomination is very disappointing, but not surprising," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Allliance. "We need to use her confirmation hearing to get her on record as promising to abide by the Obama administration guidelines on medical marijuana enforcement. She may just be someone who goes along to get along, but it would be good to get her on record on whether the DEA is going to continue to waste law enforcement resources going after low-level offenders."

Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) was more than disappointed by the nomination. "This nomination is disconcerting, to say the least," said LEAP media relations director Tom Angell. "It's hard to see how giving the DEA directorship to someone who went out of her way to block medical marijuana research aligns with President Obama's pledge to set policies based on science and facts."

One question for reformers is how much Leonhart was following her own lead during her career and how much she was just following orders. "Now that she will be a permanent agency head, maybe she can establish a clearer doctrine under this administration," said St. Pierre. "When she made her Craker ruling, she was operating under Bush doctrine. The hope is that now perhaps she will get in line with Obama and Holder's articulation of criminal justice and drug war priorities."

Reining in the raids on medical marijuana providers is one of those, St. Pierre noted. "Since last May's executive order on preemption and the October Justice Department memo on medical marijuana, it doesn't look like the DEA has really interfered very much with these dispensaries, especially in places like Montana and Colorado, where there were none and now there are hundreds," he said. "It looks like Leonhart has abated a bit compared to the marching orders she was under when she was first named acting administrator."

"It's possible she will change her tune on getting orders from above," said Gieringer. "I don't know to what extent she was taking orders from above on indefensible things like deciding to disallow the research at UMass."

Another question facing reformers is how to respond to the nomination. "We are contemplating how we are going to approach this," Houston said. "A lot of our members want us to ask senators to hold her nomination."

"People should try to stop it, but we shouldn't get our hopes up," said Piper. "Democrats are going to rally around the president, and stopping one of Obama's nominees may be too much for Democrats to do. But we can still campaign against her, and one of the great things about that is that you can use the campaign to box them in, to get them to promise to do -- or not do -- a range of things. For instance, when we had the campaign to stop Asa Hutchinson from being nominated DEA head, we got him to go on record in favor of eliminating the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity and diverting more people to treatment. Even if we fail to stop the nomination, it can still lead to good things. It's certainly worth launching an all-out effort. "

"Reformers should take the approach that a thorough hearing is called for," said Eric Sterling, director of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. "I don't know that they should argue she should be blocked, but that her role in these matters needs to be examined. That's a politically smarter way for us to approach her nomination."

Sterling expressed real concern about Leonhart's role in the Chambers scandal. "I hope that the Judiciary Committee looks aggressively at her career, and what role she may have played in promoting the career of this informant who seems to be a career perjurer," he said. "If her practice was to knowingly tolerate perjury and encourage the use of an informant who is a perjurer, she is not qualified to be head of DEA by any stretch. The danger of perjury and the overzealousness of being willing to tolerate it is one of the greatest dangers any law enforcement agency faces. Given the enormously long sentences that exist in federal cases, the risks of injustice are monumental," he noted.

"To the extent that she has a reputation on the street that she promoted or used a perjuring informant, that is a terrible signal within the agency -- if that is really the case," Sterling continued. "I think it is extremely important that the Judiciary Committee inquire into this before they vote on her nomination. I can only hope that the Obama administration has vetted her more scrupulously than some of their earlier nominees whose tax problems were either undiscovered or ignored. This is a much more sensitive position, and both good judgment regarding truth telling and punishing those who violate that trust by tolerating perjury are essential features of this job."

Another area for senatorial scrutiny is medical marijuana, said Sterling. "With respect to medical marijuana, I don't know that I would fault her given the position of the agency and the Bush administration," he said. "It would be an extraordinary DEA manager who is going to fight for medical marijuana within the agency and block raids recommended by Special Agents in Charge or US Attorneys or the Justice Department. Yes, there were some really egregious cases during her time in Los Angeles, but I'm not sure those got handled at the level she was at. This is another area senators would be justified in inquiring about. If the committee just rubber stamps this nomination, that's a mistake."

Sterling even had some questions ready for the senators. "One question to ask is what scientific evidence she would need to reschedule marijuana," Sterling suggested. "Another is what state actions would her agency honor and not carry out raids. And she could be asked why the DEA needs to be involved with medical marijuana in California, the largest state in the nation and one with a functioning medical marijuana law. Has the DEA so completely eliminated the state's heroin and methamphetamine problems that the DEA can now turn its attention to medical marijuana purveyors?"

Chances are that Michele Leonhart is going to be the next head of DEA. But she is going to be under intense scrutiny between now and then, and reformers intend to make the most of it.

Obama Chooses Terrible Nominee to Head the DEA

After stalling for a whole year, the White House has finally announced Obama's choice to head the DEA. And there isn’t anything good to be said about it:

For those hoping that Barack Obama would wage the war on drugs less aggressively than his predecessor, this is not a good sign: Yesterday he announced that the new head of the Drug Enforcement Administration will be Michele Leonhart, a career DEA agent who has been the agency's deputy administrator since March 2004 and its acting administrator since November 2007. [Reason]


For all the recent rhetoric about changing the focus of our drug policy and moving beyond the war mentality that's gripped this issue for decades, the White House now plans to promote a Bush Administration holdover who couldn’t more perfectly embody the ugly history we're all working so hard to put behind us.

It was Leonhart who gave marching orders in the federal war on medical marijuana, right up to and even after the Obama Administration pledged to respect state laws. She celebrated the inauguration with a cleverly-timed, though transparently dishonest move to continue blocking medical marijuana research despite the ruling of a DEA administrative law judge. She's been closely tied to the sketchiest career informant in DEA history, even making light of his reputation for perjury. And she even managed to get her name in the press by wasting $123,000 in taxpayer money on a private flight to Colombia, even though the DEA owns 106 airplanes.

Leonhart's nomination is an affront to the Obama Administration's promises of a more enlightened drug policy approach. It's also a clear statement that they don't think we're paying attention to the faces behind the drug war's rich and recent history of arrogance, ignorance and injustice. Let's prove them wrong by opposing this embarrassing nomination as loudly as we can.

Please contact the White House today to tell them that Michele Leonhart's DEA career has already gone on far too long.

Why is DEA Condemning Efforts to Prevent Heroin Deaths?


There are many ways for drug warriors to sound heartless and cruel in the drug policy debate, but one of the worst is certainly the objection to life-saving harm reduction programs. Just watch this DEA spokesman complain about efforts to reduce HIV infection in New York:



Harm reduction is a matter of public health for everyone, not just drug users. To frame this as a simple question of whether we should be "teaching people how to do drugs" is powerfully shortsighted and oblivious to the actual risks that drug policy should seek to address.

It's incredible that these drug warriors spend so much time warring against imaginary and exaggerated drug threats, while simultaneously opposing sensible approaches in those areas where legitimate health concerns do exist.

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