Justice

The Head of the DEA Just Made A Surprising Confession About Marijuana

In recent news related to the marijuana debate, the acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration said on Tuesday that marijuana was a less dangerous drug than heroin, and that DEA agents nationwide would focus on high priority cases—most of which involve harder drugs like opioids and heroin.

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The statement by acting head of the DEA Chuck Rosenberg—while cautious and perhaps benign in its phrasing—was nevertheless a marked departure from the hardline stance on pot espoused by the embattled former DEA chief Michele Leonhart, who resigned in April amid allegations of scandals within the agency.

In a phone conference Tuesday morning, Rosenberg told US News that while the drug was still dangerous and would be pursued by DEA agents, it likely isn't as dangerous as the agency has previously held it to be. "If you want me to say that marijuana's not dangerous, I'm not going to say that because I think it is," he said. "Do I think it's as dangerous as heroin? Probably not. I'm not an expert."

"Let me say it this way: I'd rather be in a car accident going 30 miles an hour than 60 miles an hour, but I'd prefer not to be in a car accident at all," Rosenberg added.

Prior to her resignation, Leonhart was characterized by an uncompromising view of marijuana, even as multiple states move to legalize medical and recreational iterations of the drug, and a majority of Americans support legalizing the drug. The former chief even clashed with the Obama administration for calling the drug less dangerous than alcohol. As Fusion noted in 2012, Leonhart refused to admit that marijuana was less dangerous than heroin.

On Tuesday, Rosenberg said that he asked DEA administrators nationwide "to focus their efforts and the resources of the DEA on the most important cases in their jurisdictions, and by and large what they are telling me is that the most important cases in their jurisdictions are opioids and heroin." He also added that while he told branch leaders not to shy away from marijuana cases, his vision for the agency was to focus on "the biggest and most important cases there are."

Marijuana is still federally classified as a Schedule 1 substance—in other words, lacking the potential to be used any other way than recreationally—but the announcement comes as even staunch supporters of War on Drugs policies, which are inexorably linked to the scheduling of marijuana alongside drugs like heroin and LSD, have signaled a shift in their approach.

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Also on Tuesday, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), who has been known in Congress as an ardent supporter of War on Drugs policies, signed his name to a sweeping bipartisan bill that would reschedule marijuana, among other things, introduced earlier this year by Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). The legislation, known as the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States Act, would also relax restrictions for research on the drug, allow Veterans Affairs doctors to prescribe marijuana for veterans, and lift restrictions on the interstate transfer of certain cannabinoid oils for medical patients.

For drug reform advocates, the move marked an important step towards curtailing destructive War on Drugs policies.

"This is one of the clearest signs yet that the decades-long Congressional consensus on maintaining the war on drugs is quickly crumbling," Tom Angell, founder of the Marijuana Majority, told ATTN: in an email. "[T]his longtime drug warrior has signed his name onto a bill to demolish many of the most important policies undergirding federal marijuana prohibition."

Schumer's shift, Angell said, was likely a response to a shift in public opinion away from the harsh drug policies of recent decades toward more nuanced approaches, a trend likely to show up in the voting actions of other elected officials.

"Expect to see many more legislators taking note –– and taking action –– soon," he said.