“The amendment was a necessary response to an absurd regulatory morass,” Montana Sen. Steve Daines, one of the three Republicans to support Thursday’s amendment, tells Politico, referring to the multifaceted and complex system of laws that have been enacted over the past four decades to prosecute a war on marijuana. It’s a war that began on or about May 26, 1971, when President Richard Nixon told his chief of staff Bob Haldeman, “I want a goddamn strong statement on marijuana …I mean one on marijuana that just tears the ass out of them.”
But that war appears to be winding down—potentially quickly. The summer of 2015 could be viewed historically as the tipping point against Nixon’s war on pot, the time when the DEA, a federal drug-fighting agency created by Nixon in 1973, found itself in unfamiliar territory as a target of congressional scrutiny, budget cuts and scorn. In a conference call this week, the new acting DEA administrator repeatedly downplayed marijuana enforcement efforts, saying that while he’s not exactly telling agents not to pursue marijuana cases, it’s generally not something anyone focuses on these days: “Typically it’s heroin, opioids, meth and cocaine in roughly that order and marijuana tends to come in at the back of the pack.”
What a difference a year makes.
Once upon a time—in fact, just last year—then-DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart could dismiss President Barack Obama’s views on marijuana in public and get away with it because she had friends in Congress. After Obama said he believed marijuana was less dangerous than alcohol, Leonhart lambasted her boss as soft on drugs—and criticized the White House staff for playing in a softball league that included advocates from a drug reform group.
Then, she tried to bigfoot Sen. Mitch McConnell over his farm bill hemp provision; she slow-walked Sen. Chuck Grassley for three years over his questions about the DEA’s improper detention of a San Diego college student; and she was downright dismissive of an inspector general report that showed her agents had sex with prostitutes in Colombia who were paid for by the drug cartels the agents were supposed to be fighting. One by one, Leonhart eliminated all her friends in Congress, even as national attitudes about marijuana were shifting under the DEA’s feet.
The day after Leonhart’s appearance before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, when she admitted she didn’t know if the prostitutes used by DEA agents were underage, Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.)issued a joint statement expressing no confidence in Leonhart’s leadership. The next day, Leonhart retired, a move Chaffetz and Cummings deemed “appropriate.” That was April.
In May, the Senate made history by voting in favor of the first pro-marijuana measure ever offered in that chamber to allow the Veterans Administration to recommend medical marijuana to veterans. Then when June rolled around, it was time for the House to pass its appropriations bill for Commerce, Justice and Science. That’s when things got interesting. The DEA got its budget cut by $23 million, had its marijuana eradication unit’s budget slashed in half and its bulk data collections program shut down. Ouch.
In short, April was a bad month for the DEA; May was historically bad; but June was arguably the DEA’s worst month since Colorado went legal 18 months ago—a turn of events that was easy to miss with the news crammed with tragic shootings, Confederate flags, Obamacare, gay marriage, a papal encyclical and the Greece-Euro drama. July hasn’t been any different, with the legalization movement only gaining steam in both chambers of Congress.
The string of setbacks, cuts and handcuffs for the DEA potentially signals a new era for the once untouchable law enforcement agency—a sign that the national reconsideration of drug policy might engulf and fundamentally alter DEA’s mission.
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