DEA Chief Wrong on Marijuana and Mandatory Minimums

It’s difficult working for a boss who doesn’t agree with you on the very things you were hired for. For DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart it’s becoming an increasing problem under the Obama Administration and a country who supports marijuana legalization. Recently, she displayed all the ways in which she is wrong at a meeting with the Senate Judiciary Committee.

According to the Drug War Chronicle, Leonhart was there to explain to the Committee that despite the White House stepping back on federal marijuana enforcement, she is adamantly opposed to all legalization efforts and stands committed to mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders.

“The trends are what us in law enforcement had expected would happen,” said Leonhart. “In 2012, 438,000 Americans were addicted to heroin. And 10 times that number were dependent on marijuana.”

But Leonhart’s statement doesn’t identify a trend. It doesn’t say what was happening before 2012 and what was happening after, or how these figures tie into the changing landscape of marijuana laws across the country.

Further, marijuana dependency is an interesting topic in itself, as the plant has been found time and time again to not be physically addictive. Sure, you can make a habit of smoking pot, but you can have a soda habit too or a Doritos habit—questionable for your health but not addictive like alcohol, heroin, or prescription painkillers.

Michele Leonhart“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 at the DEA, mandatory minimums have been very important to our investigations,” said Leonhart. “We depend on those as a way to ensure that the right sentences equate the level of violator we are going after.”

Leonhart is right that prosecutors, DEA agents, Federal prosecutors and the like largely approve of mandatory minimums. Why wouldn’t they? For that team, mandatory minimums are a powerful bargaining and punishing tool. When you hold the potential of a mandatory minimum over the head of a low-level drug offender, it becomes much easier to gain their cooperation in their own and other investigations. It also becomes easier to gain a confession, whether or not the suspect is guilty, and it becomes much, much easier to send someone away for years on a nonviolent drug crime.

According to Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), since mandatory minimums were created in the 1980s, the federal prison population has grown from 24,000 to 218,000, making it the largest prison system in the U.S. And the U.S. has some large prison systems—incarcerating more people than any other country in the world. Leonhart obviously doesn’t want to lose this distinction.

Mandatory minimums are at the foundation of the flawed War on Drugs, the war that has served to incarcerate a nation, spend untold taxpayer dollars and make the illegal drug trade bigger than ever. They do nothing to make our communities safer, they are enforced in a racially disparate manner, and they create institutionalized former offenders who come home after years of imprisonment and struggle to integrate back into society.

“It scares us,” said DEA chief of operations James Capra, echoing Leonhart’s sentiments on marijuana legalization. “Every part of the world where this has been tried, it has failed time and time again.”

Capra is wrong too—“it” has never been tried before. Marijuana legalization following the sweeping criminalization of the drug has never been tried like it is being tried now in Uruguay, Colorado, and Washington.

Of course it scares them; the dismantling of the War on Drugs threatens their jobs. But fear and flawed rationalization of tough-on-crime penalties are no reason to continue the mass incarceration of Americans, incarcerations that have largely done nothing positive for our safety, our national budget and even for drug abuse prevention.


About Elizabeth

Elizabeth Renter is a freelance writer and editor who writes about criminal justice issues.

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