Hutchinson Takes DEA Mantle, Comments Elicit Confusion and Criticism 8/24/01

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Former Arkansas congressman, Clinton impeachment manager, and federal prosecutor Asa Hutchinson was sworn in Monday as head of the US Drug Enforcement Administration. The DEA, the nation's lead federal anti-drug law enforcement agency, helps shape as well as enforce US drug policy, and Hutchinson takes over at a time when the agency and the drug war it prosecutes are under increasing attack.

In remarks to reporters shortly before being sworn in, Hutchinson attempted to strike the pose of enlightened drug warrior. He vowed a greater emphasis on rehabilitation and drug treatment programs, saying they are "the new approaches that we ought to be open to" -- but only within the context of coerced treatment. Using Robert Downey, Jr., the actor whose professional success was seemingly unimpaired by his widely-publicized drug use (as opposed to being arrested for his drug use), as a poster child for coerced drug treatment, Hutchinson said, "Mr. Downey Jr. in California has gone through rehab because it started with law enforcement."

But Hutchinson, a drug court advocate, is leery of the new California law under which Downey is receiving drug treatment instead of prison time. "We need to watch the California experiment. I think it's a strong statement by the population there that people want to take a look at treatment for nonviolent drug users rather than incarceration," Hutchinson conceded. But he saw two "difficulties" with Proposition 36, the "treatment not jail" initiative passed last November and in effect since July 30. The program lacks mandated drug testing, he said, and the state may lack the treatment facilities to meet demand.

"California is going to have to invest in that," he told the assembled reporters. "It doesn't do any good to refer drug offenders for treatment if there's not strong programs. I think we need to work with California to make it work."

Hutchinson also wanted to have it both ways on mandatory minimum sentencing. He worried aloud that mandatory minimums "take the discretion away from judges," but said he generally supports the concept. He expressed concern about the crack vs. powder cocaine sentencing disparities, but gave no indication of how he would recommend resolving them.

But if Hutchinson generally trod carefully during his remarks, his remarks on medical marijuana have sparked strong criticisms. Clearly under the influence of federal anti-marijuana policy, Hutchinson claimed that the scientific and medical communities have so far found no legitimate medical uses for marijuana, apparently ignoring a growing body of evidence to the contrary.

"Hutchinson is either unaware of or is ignoring the years-long lawsuit intended to persuade the DEA to reschedule marijuana," the Marijuana Policy Project's ( Rob Kampia told DRCNet. "He is unaware of or ignoring the scientific evidence that was presented in the late 1980s, when DEA administrative judge Francis Young ruled that marijuana should be rescheduled, but was overruled by the agency. He is unaware of or ignoring the Institute of Medicine study," Kampia continued. "We have no confidence that Hutchinson or the DEA actually respects the science on medical marijuana."

But even while leaving such important evidence by the rhetorical wayside, Hutchinson still attempted to portray himself as open-minded. "If they continue to study it," Hutchinson said, "we will listen to them. You have to listen to the medical community in terms of what is legitimate pain medication versus that which is simply a guise for a different agenda," he warned.

Hutchinson told reporters he would enforce the federal ban on medical marijuana distribution, but when pressed by as to just how he would enforce became much more vague. "The question is how do you address that from an enforcement standpoint," he said. "You're not going to tolerate a violation of the law, but at the same time there are a lot of different relationships, a lot of different aspects that we have to consider as we develop that enforcement policy."

"What does that mean?" asked a befuddled Kampia. "If I had to parse those remarks, it sounds like he's saying yes it's illegal, but how we enforce it will vary depending on a number of factors, possibly including quantity, prosecutors' workloads, or how high-profile the person or organization is. But by resorting to that nonsensical statement, he was able to avoid the hard questions," said Kampia. "Such as, 'do you mean that medical marijuana law enforcement is variable, do you mean someone could get investigated because of his or her political views?' Those are the sorts of questions Hutchinson wanted to avoid."

Hutchinson also said he:

  • Supports US anti-drug policy in Colombia.
  • Is encouraged by the "victories" [ed: what victories?] of the last 15 years, but acknowledged a "sense that our efforts are not as fruitful as we would like them to be."
  • Announced he would look at improving the DEA's supervision of paid informants. In this case, Hutchinson was probably inspired by media coverage of DEA supersnitch and habitual perjurer Andrew Chambers (
Overall, Hutchinson's pre-swearing comments suggest an old-school drug warrior uncomfortably trying to adjust to "kindler, gentler" garb demanded by the new era of drug policy. Hutchinson must be nervously looking over his shoulder at the even more hard-line, poised to mug him if he veers too far from all-out drug war.

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Issue #200, 8/24/01 Editorial: Random Marijuana | More Drug Prisoners Doing More Time in Federal Prison System, According to New Justice Department Report | Colombian Legislators Introduce Legalization, Cultivation Bills, Ask UN to Evaluate Global Anti-Drug Strategies | Jamaican Ganja Commission Calls for Decrim, Battle With US Brewing | Pressure Builds for Safe Injection Rooms in Vancouver as Canadian Medical Association Journal Studies Add Fuel to Fire | NIDA Ecstasy Conference Hears Harm Reduction Call | Aging Behind Bars: New Report from The Sentencing Project Blasts California's Three-Strikes Law | Hutchinson Takes DEA Mantle, Comments Elicit Confusion and Criticism | Hempfest Draws 100,000 in Seattle, Hempstock Draws the Cops in Maine | T-shirts for Victory! Special Offer and Appeal from DRCNet This Month | Action Alerts: Ecstasy Bill, HEA, Mandatory Minimums, Medical Marijuana, John Walters | HEA Campaign Still Seeking Student Victim Cases -- New York Metropolitan Area Especially Urgent | The Reformer's Calendar
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