By Phillip Smith
Criticism is mounting over reported remarks last week of DEA chief Michele Leonhart in a speech to the Major Counties Sheriffs Association. Leonhart criticized her boss, President Obama, for acknowledging in a recent interview that marijuana is not more dangerous than alcohol and that the experiments with marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington were "important."
Precisely what Leonhart told the gathered sheriffs is unclear because no media were allowed in the room, but the anti-legalization sheriffs ate it up, according to the Boston Herald, which spoke with some of them.
"She's frustrated for the same reasons we are," Bristol County (MA) Sheriff Thomas Hodgson said. "She said she felt the administration didn't understand the science enough to make those statements. She was particularly frustrated with the fact that, according to her, the White House participated in a softball game with a pro-legalization group... But she said her lowest point in 33 years in the DEA was when she learned they'd flown a hemp flag over the Capitol on July 4. The sheriffs were all shocked. This is the first time in 28 years I've ever heard anyone in her position be this candid."
The hemp flag was flown at the request of Colorado Rep. Jared Polis (D), a strong marijuana reform supporter.
Kern County (CA) Sheriff Donny Youngblood, head of the sheriffs' group, said Leonhart criticized Obama for making what he described as "irresponsible" remarks that were "a big slap in the face" to police officers who lost their lives prosecuting the drug war.
"This is a woman who has spent 33 years of her life fighting drug abuse in the DEA, her entire life. To have the president of the United States publicly say marijuana was a bad habit like alcohol was appalling to everyone in that room," Youngblood said. "I think the way that she felt was that it was a betrayal of what she does for the American people in enforcing our drug laws... She got a standing ovation."
Hodgson said sheriffs see marijuana as "gateway drug" (Editor's Note: Despite the notion having been repeatedly debunked) and that political leaders should be preventing drug use, not playing down its dangers and providing kids with excuses.
"The last person we need saying this to kids is the president of the United States," Hodgson said.
While Leonhart's remarks played well with law enforcement officials with a vested interest in maintaining the prohibitionist status quo, they didn't sit nearly as well with drug reformers.
"Whether Ms. Leonhart is ignorant of the facts or intentionally disregarding them, she is clearly unfit for her current position," said Dan Riffle, MPP director of federal policies. "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 group has launched a Change.org petition calling on the president to fire Leonhart and replace her with someone who will base decisions on science and evidence instead of politics and ideology.
"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," Riffle said. "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."
The petition calls for Leonhart to be replaced by "someone who will uphold [President Obama's] mandate that administration decisions be guided by science instead of ideology and politics," the group urged.