DEA Chief Tough on Medical Marijuana
Hutchinson Will Focus on Enforcing Ban, Improving Informant Accountability
By Cheryl W. Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 21, 2001; Page A04
The new head of the Drug Enforcement Administration said yesterday that he would enforce the federal ban on medical marijuana, wants to improve the accountability of paid confidential informants and intends to increase technology used in the war on drugs.
Asa Hutchinson, a former Republican congressman from Arkansas, said he wants to "send the right signal" on medical marijuana. Federal law prohibits the sale of marijuana for medicinal purposes. But several states, including California and Oregon, allow people to grow it, dispense it and use it without fear of prosecution, which is considered a federal responsibility under a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision.
"Currently, it's a violation of federal law," Hutchinson told reporters, who had gathered at DEA headquarters in Arlington for his swearing-in ceremony. "The question is how you address that from an enforcement standpoint.
"You're not going to tolerate a violation of the law, but at the same time there are a lot of different relationships . . . a lot of different aspects that we have to consider as we develop that enforcement policy."
Hutchinson, 50, a former federal prosecutor, takes over a federal agency with 9,000 employees and a $1.5 billion budget. As a congressman, he was a conservative who supported local drug courts, which offer alternatives to prison. He won the support of Republicans and Democrats during his confirmation hearings last month.
Hutchinson was a House manager during the Senate impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton and was considered this year as a possible deputy attorney general. But ties to his alma mater, Bob Jones University, hurt his chances. The school, which awarded Hutchinson a bachelor's degree in 1972 and an honorary law degree in 1999, prohibited interracial dating until March 2000.
Hutchinson said that he wants to improve relationships with international law enforcement agencies to curb drug smuggling, and was encouraged by a decline in the use of cocaine in the United States. Cocaine use has decreased 75 percent in the last 15 years, he said.
Hutchinson also said that he wants to implement a stronger "check and balance" system for the use of confidential informants and other DEA activities. He cited the case of informant Andrew Chambers as the "perfect example" of why such a system is needed.
Chambers worked as a paid DEA confidential informant for 16 years. During that time he wrecked dozens of prosecutions of street-level drug traffickers by giving false testimony, but he received about $1.8 million from the government. He was removed from the DEA payroll in early 2000.
The DEA now has a central registry for informants so the agency knows when the informant is being used by other jurisdictions and where each person has testified, Hutchinson said.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company