DEA May Back Off of Marijuana

Chuck Rosenberg was appointed acting head of the Drug Enforcement Agency on May 13, 2015. According to a senior administration official quoted in the Los Angeles Times, the DEA will now turn its attention away from marijuana and focus its resources on improving “the DEA’s procedures on classifying, declassifying and reclassifying drugs.”

Since the central issue for the legal marijuana industry is the classification of marijuana as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, a new focus on re-classification could be promising. Nonetheless, hopes for reform at the DEA are tempered by realism, and long-term advocates like the Drug Policy Alliance still call for the agency’s abolition.

Rosenberg, who has a long Justice Department resume and who formerly served as chief of staff to FBI Director James B. Comey, is widely seen as an able administrator, and will probably serve as acting head of the DEA until the end of the Obama administration. If expectations are met, the agency’s new priorities could answer frequently asked questions about Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s position on marijuana enforcement priorities, given her personal and public opposition to legalization.

On an optimistic note, as head of the DEA, Rosenberg has the authority to accept a petition to re-schedule marijuana. Rosenberg’s appointment also coincides with an effort in the House to add a provision to the fiscal year 2016 Commerce-Justice-Science spending bill directing the DEA to research how well medical marijuana works. That measure has bipartisan backing, including support from Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., otherwise known as a vocal opponent of legalization efforts in the District of Columbia.

In April, the DEA announced it wants to more than triple the amount of marijuana it produces for research to keep up with demand. The CARERS Act, introduced by Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., Cory Booker, D-N.J. and Kirsten Gillibrand D-N.Y., is currently pending and similar legislation has been introduced in the House. There are a significant number of generally positive, if not conclusive, developments on the federal level.

However, the process for reviewing any re-scheduling petition would likely take years, far longer than Rosenberg’s anticipated tenure. Others note, with some pessimism, that lame duck leadership is unlikely to change the entrenched culture of an organization, and that much enforcement action takes place on the state and local level, and would be unaffected by a change in federal administrative priorities.

Rosenberg’s appointment has also apparently done little to mollify marijuana advocates’ distaste for the DEA. On May 13, the Drug Policy Alliance posted a mock “Help Wanted” ad in Roll Call, seeking applicants for the top spot with “at least 10 years’ experience turning a blind eye to scandal and corruption.”  The satirical ad further outlines five major areas of responsibility, including mass incarceration, police state tactics, obstruction of science, subverting democracy and undermining human rights.

It is probably cold comfort for the new administrator that the agency’s reputation, at least in some quarters, apparently has nowhere to go but up.  Rosenberg has an enormous house cleaning task at the DEA and little time. It may be unrealistic to expect major marijuana initiatives, but doing no harm would, at least in the eyes of many, be an improvement.

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