DEA Chief’s Comment Signals Shift in Debate

On August 5, 2015, Chuck Rosenberg, the new head of the Drug Enforcement Agency, set the headlines buzzing with the surprising admission that “heroin is clearly more dangerous than marijuana.” Although that sounds like a small concession, Rosenberg’s admission marks a significant shift in U.S. drug policy.

Rosenberg’s announcement was made in part to clarify a previous statement made the week before. According to The Verge, Rosenberg stated that his agency would not be making marijuana a main priority, but at the same time, the DEA would not completely abandon enforcement.

“If you want me to say that marijuana’s not dangerous, I’m not going to say that because I think it is,” Rosenberg told reporters on a conference call. “Do I think it’s as dangerous as heroin? Probably not. I’m not an expert.”

Although the word “probably” rankled some advocates, Dan Riffle of the Marijuana Policy Project told U.S. News that it was a welcome change in rhetoric. “This is not a matter of opinion,” Riffle said. “It’s far less harmful than heroin and it’s encouraging that the DEA is finally willing to recognize that.”

In 2012, former DEA Chief Michele Leonhart received heavy criticism over her refusal to admit that marijuana was less dangerous than drugs like crack cocaine, repeating the line “all illegal drugs are bad.” Leonhart later resigned after it was revealed that DEA agents were having sex parties with cartel-hired prostitutes.

Compared to Leonhart’s statements about marijuana, Rosenberg’s comment sounds almost progressive.

In the narrow context, Rosenberg’s statements won’t mean much. People will still get arrested for marijuana, marijuana businesses will still have inadequate access to banking services, and marijuana still won’t be legal in all 50 states.

However, in the broader perspective, this is a critical turning point with regards to rhetoric in the drug war. With a few exceptions, the federal government has been unwilling to take up and make moves toward marijuana reform.

Because of that inactivity, any move in the right direction is significant. Remember, nine former DEA chiefs support Oklahoma’s and Nebraska’s lawsuit against Colorado for legalizing recreational marijuana.

Going from DEA chiefs who can’t even distinguish between marijuana and crack to someone that, according to The Huffington Post, ranks the DEA’s priorities as “heroin, opioids, meth and cocaine,” with  marijuana “at the back of the pack,” is an important step toward the normalization of marijuana laws.

However, despite encouraging signs from the current DEA chief many marijuana advocates are still cautiously waiting to see if Rosenberg’s actions will match his words.

In a letter to the Office of the Inspector General at the Department of Justice, Reps. Sam Farr, D-Calif., and Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., demanded that the OIG immediately investigate whether the DEA is still using federal funds to pursue medical marijuana business and patients that are following state law.

The congressional representatives point to cases like the Kettle Falls Five, where medical marijuana patients were tried for the sales and possession of marijuana.

“Cases such as [these] are all instances of DOJ expending dollars it does not have the legal authority to spend,” the letter stated.  “Consequently, we believe there is sufficient cause for your office to investigate potential violations of the Anti-Deficiency Act by the Department with regard to its prosecution and other enforcement actions against persons and businesses conducting legitimate medical marijuana activities under state law.”

It is unclear how the OIG will respond to Rohrabacher and Farr’s letter, but prospects remain positive for the time being. In the world of politics, appearances matter, and with this recent change of rhetoric, the climate for reform appears to be clearing up.

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