The DEA is still clinging to Reagan-era hysteria over marijuana

The rest of the country is moving beyond ‘reefer madness,’ but the DEA is still living in the 1980s.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Danny Johnston
CREDIT: AP Photo/Danny Johnston

After delaying their decision for months, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) finally announced Thursday that it will not ease restrictions on marijuana, currently regulated under the strictest classification available.

The rest of the country may be moving on from the fears of “reefer madness,” but the DEA still has a long way to go.

The agency’s decision to keep marijuana classified in the same category as heroin was met with outrage, particularly from the scientific community where there is a growing consensus that the fears surrounding marijuana are baseless.

But the DEA telegraphed its intentions long before their formal announcement.

As recently as November, acting chief of the DEA Chuck Rosenberg called medical marijuana “a joke.”

“If you talk about smoking the leaf of marijuana — which is what people are talking about when they talk about medicinal marijuana — it has never been shown to be safe or effective as a medicine,” Rosenberg asserted, despite numerous studies to the contrary.

Rosenberg’s predecessor, Michele Leonhart, publicly pushed even more archaic views of marijuana. While being grilled in Congress in 2012, Leonhart refused to admit that crack cocaine, prescription pills, or heroin were more dangerous than marijuana. “I believe all illegal drugs are bad,” she maintained.

The tense and incredulous exchange between members of Congress and the DEA chief showcased the attitude gap between the politicians trying to move beyond the drug war and the agents tasked with enforcing it.

The DEA is increasingly at odds with state governments and even other federal agencies over its treatment of marijuana.

The agency’s stance hasn’t changed much since the 1980s, when hysteria over drugs was in full swing. Throughout the late 80s and early 90s, about 80 percent of Americans believed marijuana should be illegal.

Leonhart joined the DEA in 1980, just as the federal government was beginning to escalate the War on Drugs.

Poster for the 1938 film “Reefer Madness”
Poster for the 1938 film “Reefer Madness”

“Leading medical researchers are coming to the conclusion that marijuana, pot, grass, whatever you want to call it, is probably the most dangerous drug in the United States,” former President Ronald Reagan declared in 1980.


But public opinion — and medical research — has evolved drastically since then. Twenty-five states and Washington, D.C. have legalized pot for either medicinal or recreational use, and several more may vote to join their ranks in November. Nationally, a majority of Americans favor legalization.

The dramatic attitude shift has reached even President Obama, who said in 2014 he believes marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol.

But a week later, Leonhart told reporters the growing tolerance for marijuana use only “makes us fight harder,” and privately criticized Obama’s characterization.

The dissonance goes beyond rhetoric. During her confirmation hearings, Leonhart promised to ignore her own administration’s formal guidelines to ease up enforcement in states that have chosen to legalize medical marijuana.

True to her word, as the Obama administration publicly pledged to support state legalization efforts, Leonhart’s DEA cracked down on these same states. The agency has spent massive amounts of taxpayer dollars hunting down pot farms and destroying plants in states where it’s legal. It’s also made a point to intimidate businesses and providers.


Doctors who prescribed medical marijuana in Massachusetts reported they were being blackmailed and treated like drug dealers by DEA agents, who threatened to revoke the doctors’ federal prescription licenses if they did not sever ties to marijuana dispensaries.

Leonhart was ousted last year, not for enabling harassment of doctors or for rejecting the president’s agenda, but for failing to fix the agency’s “good old boy” culture, after revelations that agents routinely enjoyed “sex parties” with prostitutes provided by Colombian drug cartels.

Since Rosenberg took over the agency, DEA policy has taken some small steps to acknowledging the new reality in the U.S. In April, for the first time ever, the DEA approved marijuana smoking in a clinical trial to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. And even though the agency is closing its eyes to the research showing the current controls on marijuana make no sense, it will allow further study of the drug. Rosenberg has even cautiously conceded that he does think heroin is more dangerous than marijuana.