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By Clifford Thornton

The head of the Drug Enforcement Administration is refusing to support a bill backed by the Obama administration that would modify mandatory minimum sentences for federal drug crimes, putting her at odds with her boss, Attorney General Holder. He hopes to make the bill, the “Smarter Sentencing Act” a centerpiece of his legacy.

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As DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart explained, “Having been in law enforcement as an agent for 33 years, [and] a Baltimore City police officer before that, I can tell you that for me and for the agents that work for DEA, mandatory minimums have been very important to our investigations. We depend on those as a way to ensure that the right sentences are going to the… level of violator we are going after.”

Administrator Leonhart, appointed by Bush a Deputy Administrator of the DEA in 2004 and served as Acting Administrator of the DEA in 2007, was appointed by President Obama as Administrator in 2010 over the objections of many drug policy reformers. She has been at the DEA since 1980.

Leonhart has reportedly harshly criticized the President behind closed doors for saying that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol. She also said that the legalization of marijuana in Washington and Colorado has only forced DEA agents to become more aggressive; and stated that gangs are taking over in Washington and Colorado in the wake of marijuana legalization, even as there is no evidence that this is true. Holder has said he is optimistic about the way things are progressing in those states.

In 2012, while testifying before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security, Leonhart refused to acknowledge that marijuana poses fewer health risks than heroin or crack, which would require it to be removed from the Drug Schedule I. Doing that would effectively change marijuana national policy.

Nobody really expected that a lifetime drug warrior would quietly accept marijuana legalization. But publicly undermining the Obama administration’s position on reforming mandatory minimum drug sentences, especially given that it is a crucial part of Attorney General Eric Holder’s Smart on Crime initiative, is obvious insubordination.

The Marijuana Policy Project, Director of Federal Policies Dan Riffle said:

“Whether Ms. Leonhart is ignorant of the facts or intentionally disregarding them, she is clearly unfit for her current position. By any objective measure, marijuana is less harmful than alcohol to the consumer and society. It is irresponsible and unacceptable for a government official charged with enforcing our drug laws to deny the facts surrounding the nation’s two most popular recreational drugs.

“The DEA administrator’s continued refusal to recognize marijuana’s relative safety compared to alcohol and other drugs flies in the face of the President’s commitment to prioritizing science over ideology and politics. She is neglecting the basic obligations of her job and fundamentally undermining her employer’s mission.  This would be grounds for termination in the private sector, and the consequences for Ms. Leonhart should be no different.”

It is our position that Ms. Leonhart should resign or be fired. She is stuck in outdated drug war propaganda that has been proven to be wrong and is an impediment to important progress.


IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to enhancing the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. and globally to achieve cultural, social, economic and political equality and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.