The New DEA Head May Speak Softly, but Is It Just More Empty Rhetoric?

Those who follow drug policy regularly might remember that earlier this year, Michelle Leonhart, the prohibitionist hard-liner who presided over countless raids on cannabis dispensaries operating legally under state law as the head of DEA, resigned in disgrace after her agency was embroiled in a sex party scandal. It's good that she is out, but usually when the feds replace one of their goons, it's with some other bum who carries out the same policies.


I wrote about the Leonhart affair in April on this blog and was rather pessimistic on whether her successor, who would likely be a law enforcement veteran who rose through the ranks as a drug warrior, would be a reformist on cannabis policy.

In May, we knew the name of this new DEA head, Chuck Rosenberg. He served in his earlier career as an U.S. Attorney and later with in the FBI. This choice was probably better than the other alternatives. Although as an U.S. Attorney Rosenberg certainly had been involved in drug prosecutions, he did not come from the DEA or directly from the trenches of drug policy enforcement. That is a good initial sign.

At the time of his appointment, some of the fellow advocates claimed with inside knowledge that Rosenberg would take a softer approach to cannabis and divert prohibition’s firepower elsewhere. I took the seemingly good news with a grain of salt, as Rosenberg had not spoken on it publicly at the time, and more importantly actions speak louder than words. And these DEA types can never, ever be trusted.

Rosenberg has now opened his mouth. He did not clearly pronounce one way or another whether DEA would take a couple step back from Leonhart’s unrelenting obsession on cannabis and its users on the ground. But his overall tone was more conciliatory than his inflexible predecessor. After prefacing his statement affirming dangerous of marijuana, he said, “Do I think it’s as dangerous as heroin? Probably not. I’m not an expert.” This is in stark contrast to Leonhart, who flatly denied the scientifically-proven fact that cannabis is in no way a dangerous drug like heroin.

However, Rosenberg is not a reformer, “I’ve also told them [DEA agents] we are not going to shy away from doing marijuana cases where appropriate,” he warned, “If it’s marijuana, that’s illegal under federal law and I’ve told them not to shy from that.” He did qualify, however, that drugs commonly perceived as “harder” such as heroin and meth, are more “important cases.” So at the end of the day, the policies under the new DEA chief probably won't be much different in effect.

Only after more pressure from activists will federal government officials become amenable to change on drug policy. Remember that then-candidate Obama said similar things yet President Obama continued the raids, carried out by Leonhart, until further push by activists, resulting in the Ogden memo. And even after Ogden memo explicitly instructed U.S. Attorneys to generally stay away from going after medical cannabis producers operating in accordance to state law, raids still persisted. That was possibly due to Leonhart’s intransigence, true, but Leonhart would not be able to flout the democratic process without the long-standing drug war infrastructure backing her. It remains to be seen whether Rosenberg has the willingness or power to roll back to the prohibition regime. But if history is any indicator, I wouldn't bet on it.

Remember that Obama did not attempt to make good on his statements made on the campaign trail which were much more committal than Rosenberg’s. He, too, promised to respect state laws on cannabis. Obama did not do so before mounting pressures from activists on the grassroots level forced his hand. Therefore, we have no good cause to believe Rosenberg will take concrete actions in favor of reform without being pushed to do so.


That is why it is incumbent for us to support organizations like Peace on Our Streets, and make changes in the state and local levels that would force authorities on the federal level to think twice before meddling with the will of citizens.