When former Attorney General Eric Holder announced the retirement of Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) chief, Michelle Leonhart, on April 21st, he may have also closed the book on an era for the DEA as we know it. Called a “trailblazer for equality” by Holder in his statement, Leonhart spent 35 years working for the agency, including 8 as the top DEA official. She began serving as interim administrator in 2007, and was confirmed to be the permanent head in 2010. Holder also praised her saying that “Over the past decade, under her leadership, there have been innumerable instances of the DEA dismantling the most violent and most significant drug trafficking organizations and holding accountable the largest drug kingpins around the world.” Although praised by others as well for her efficacy in tracking drug cartels worldwide, she has drawn enormous criticism for allegations of overseas sex parties with prostitutes involving DEA agents, some apparently financed by cartels that the agents were supposed to be tracking. In addition, Leonhart has remained a staunch advocate of marijuana prohibition, and has frequently butted heads with the Obama administration over its more tolerant approach. The retirement is widely considered to be a defacto resignation, blamed more on the former issue, but it is likely the latter issue that will be the one most impacted by her absence.
In what can be described as a raucous House Oversight Committee meeting on April 14th, Leonhart was grilled for 3 ½ hours over allegations of sexual misconduct by overseas agents beginning as early as 2001. Committee chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) described the meeting, “From what we’ve heard, this reflects a ‘spring break frat party’ mentality for the last 15 years at the DEA.” The meeting comes in the wake of a report released in March by the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), which highlighted the sex party scandal as well as the attempt to cover it up. The report comes in addition to another investigation of DEA agents accused of hiring a prostitute for a Secret Service supervisor during the infamous 2012 party in Cartegena, Colombia.
Despite the wild revelations, 7 agents received light suspensions, ranging from 2 to 10 days and one was cleared of wrongdoing. To quote Representative Trey Gowdy (R-SC) during the meeting, “What would it take to get fired at the DEA?” Representative Elija Cummings (D-MD), called the revelations “an all-time low.” Chaffetz added that it was time for her to go, requesting that President Obama fire her if she chooses not to resign. Obama administration spokesperson Josh Earnest called the allegations “troubling,” and added that the administration has high expectations for its officials.
With the sex-party allegations notwithstanding, most advocates for medical and recreational marijuana legalization, including possibly the president himself, are happy to see her departure. Leonhart is also known for refusing to say if she believed that marijuana was less dangerous than crack cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine in a 2012 congressional hearing. She has opposed the legalization experiments in Colorado, Washington, as well as in other states, and she apparently lashed out against the president in closed-door meetings for his statement that he believed that marijuana was no more dangerous than alcohol.
The impending vacancy may offer an opportunity to dramatically alter the culture of the DEA. Given the nation’s evolving stance on marijuana legalization, many inside and outside of Congress are requesting someone with a more tolerant view. Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) reacted to the retirement by saying, “I encourage the president to use this as an opportunity to fill this important role with someone who understands the outdated federal approach to marijuana isn’t working. The American public has moved on. Most now feel marijuana should be legalized.” One main issue at stake, is removal of the drug from the DEA’s Schedule I classification, which prohibits government funding for scientific research into its medicinal benefits. A decision by a Sacramento federal judge earlier in the month declined to remove the schedule I placement, although many ongoing efforts are still in place to do so. The confirmation of a pro-legalization administrator will likely turn the tide against this particular barrier. Congress is still divided on the issue, although not necessarily by party-lines, with libertarian and conservative Republicans clashing over the issue and with some level of division among Democrats over how extensive the legalization policies should be. The appointment of the next DEA administrator will likely be the next bellwether in this ongoing debate.
NBC News – Jon Schuppe
New York Times – Julie Hirschfeld Davis
Washington Post/AP – Matthew Daly