The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why lawmakers are increasingly losing faith in America’s top drug cop

In this July 26, 2012 file photo, Drug Enforcement Administration Administrator Michele Leonhart speaks in Arlington, Va. 20 members of the House Oversight Committee have signed a statement of no confidence in her leadership ability. (AP/Cliff Owen)

The nation's lawmakers are increasingly losing confidence in America's top drug cop.

Yesterday, 13 Democrats and 9 Republicans on the House Oversight Committee voted to issue a statement of "no confidence" in the ability of Michele Leonhart, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, to carry out the duties of her job. The statement followed a day of withering criticism from lawmakers during Leonhart's testimony about a scandal involving DEA agents who attended lavish drug cartel-funded "sex parties" in Colombia.

Today, the White House declined to offer a vote of confidence in Leonhart. According to the Associated Press, White House spokesman Josh Earnest "was asked repeatedly whether Obama still has faith in DEA chief Michele Leonhart, but declined to answer directly." Instead, he said that Obama is concerned by "troubling details" about the Colombia scandal and the DEA's response to it.

Plenty of federal agencies suffer ethical lapses that draw Congressional scrutiny -- most notably, the Secret Service in recent months. But the DEA's situation is notable  in that it caps off years of disagreements between Leonhart, a 34-year veteran of the Administration, and Congress, the White House, and even her superiors at the Justice Department.

Leonhart first joined the Drug Enforcement Administration in 1980, at the height of the drug war. She has served as the agency's head since 2007, when George W. Bush was president. The drug policy landscape has shifted rapidly since then, and drug policy observers say the DEA has been unique among federal agencies in its reluctance to adapt to a new environment that places less emphasis on prosecuting non-violent drug crimes, particularly involving marijuana. Some analysts chalk that focus up to Leonhart, her background and her management style.

Leonhart does have her supporters. Jon Adler, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers' Association, said in an Associated Press interview that “she has our full and unwavering support and I have every confidence in her ability to lead the men and women of the DEA.”

But below are seven instances where the administrator's remarks and policies have drawn criticism from commentators, lawmakers and analysts.

1. Dead kids as a sign of drug war success

In 2011, the Washington Post wrote about a report on the deaths of hundreds of children at the hands of Mexican drug cartels. Asked to comment on the findings, Leonhart said that “it may seem contradictory, but the unfortunate level of violence is a sign of success in the fight against drugs.”

"If this is a sign of success, maybe we should reconsider waging this war," wrote Alex Pareene in Salon at the time.

2. Would not say whether crack and heroin are worse than marijuana

In 2012 testimony before the the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, Leonhart repeatedly declined under questioning to say  that marijuana is a less harmful drug than heroin, crack cocaine, and amphetamines. Well-established research has shown that weed is less harmful to individuals and society than than nearly all other drugs, including tobacco and alcohol.

"Is crack worse for a person than marijuana?" Rep. Jared Polis (D-Co.) asked.

"I believe all illegal drugs are bad," she replied.

The exchange went on like this for several minutes, drawing widespread ridicule. You can watch it in full below.

3. Challenging the White House on marijuana reform

Last year Barack Obama acknowledged the relative harmlessness of marijuana use in an interview with the New Yorker. "I don't think it is more dangerous than alcohol," he said. A few weeks later, Leonhart reportedly slammed those comments in a closed-door speech before the nation's sheriffs. A sheriff who was present told a reporter, "she said she felt the administration didn’t understand the science enough to make those statements." She also reportedly said that the the flying of a U.S. flag made of industrial hemp -- which is not a drug -- over the U.S. Capitol was the "lowest point" in her DEA career.

These remarks caused Reps. Polis and Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) to call for her resignation.

4. Opposing the Justice Department on sentencing reform

In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last May, Leonhart declined to support the Justice Department-backed Smarter Sentencing Act, which reduced mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses.

"I can tell you that for me and for the agents that work for DEA, mandatory minimums have been very important to our investigations," Leonhart said. "We depend on those as a way to ensure that the right sentences are going to the . . . level of violator we are going after."

This has put her directly at odds with Obama and her boss, Attorney General Eric Holder, who both supported the legislation. Shortly thereafter, Holder instructed her to reign in her opposition to the administration's efforts, the Huffington Post reported.

5. Aggressive targeting of medical marijuana dispensaries

The DEA has aggressively gone after medical marijuana dispensaries in California and elsewhere under Leonhart's leadership. During her confirmation hearing in 2010, Leonhart said she would "continue to enforce federal drug laws" even in states where medical marijuana is legal. This stood in opposition to guidance given to federal prosecutors by Eric Holder in 2009, directing them to back away from cases involving medical marijuana patients.

Late last year, Congress passed a measure forbidding the Justice Department from using federal funds to target medical marijuana operations. But earlier this year, Justice contended it could still proceed in several cases against individual marijuana operations. This prompted immediate condemnation from the authors of the measure, who wrote to Eric Holder that "this interpretation of our amendment is emphatically wrong."

6. Leonhart's opposition to industrial hemp

Hemp is a non-psychoactive version of the cannabis plant. No major experts consider it a drug. You can't get high from it, no matter how much you smoke. It resembles actual marijuana about as much as grape juice resembles wine.

Congress passed legislation last year allowing states to implement pilot hemp growing programs for industrial uses. Leonhart's DEA opposed it at every step of the way, culminating in multiple seizures of hemp seeds at the border last year. The DEA only backed down after the threat of lawsuits and condemnation by Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell.

7. Stonewalling the Justice Department's Inspector General

In its report last month on allegations of sexual harrasment and misconduct at the DEA and other Justice Department agencies, the Office of the Inspector General noted "repeated difficulties... in obtaining relevant information" from the DEA. The agency "refused to provide the OIG with unredacted information that was responsive to our requests," the authors wrote. "We were also concerned by an apparent decision by DEA to withhold information regarding a particular open misconduct case."


Leonhart has weathered her fair share of criticism during her tenure at the DEA. But the bipartisan statement of no confidence signed by House members yesterday represents a further deterioration of her relationship with Congress. The White House has not yet issued a comment on the statement. A DEA spokesman did not have any comment on the statement at this time.

But in general the DEA is increasingly finding itself isolated from other law enforcement agencies on questions of criminal justice and drug policy. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, for instance, has stopped referring to the "War on Drugs" and has increasingly been emphasizing treatment and prevention, rather than enforcement. The FBI has offered cautious support for sentencing reform legislation.

But the DEA is steadfastly adhering to its longstanding policies and positions .