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Former DEA chiefs worry Obama abandoning drug war

By Stephen C. Webster
Tuesday, March 5, 2013 12:46 EDT
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President Barack Obama on the campaign trail in 2008. Photo: Solphoto / Shutterstock.com.
 
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Eight former directors of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) said in an open letter published Tuesday (PDF) that they’re worried the Obama administration is abandoning the war on drugs by allowing Colorado and Washington to legalize marijuana.

“Our earlier attempts to have the Attorney General announce that he will enforce the Controlled Substances Act in Colorado and Washington have fallen upon deaf ears,” former DEA administrator Peter Bensinger said in an advisory sent to Raw Story. “Sadly, at this point we can only conclude that it is probably not Eric Holder’s decision.”

All eight former DEA chiefs — John Bartels, Peter Bensinger, Robert Bonner, Thomas Constantine, Asa Hutchinson, John Lawn, Donnie Marshall and Francis Mullen — addressed their letter to Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA), who will question Attorney General Eric Holder during a Wednesday session of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Bensinger, who ran the drug war under the Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations, added that if the Obama administration fails to sue officials in Washington and Colorado to stop legalization in its tracks, it essentially means Holder “is willing to abandon his responsibilities as the Chief Law Enforcement Officer of the United States.”

The letter coincides with a statement by the United Nations’ International Narcotics Control Board, which urged the Obama administration on Tuesday to stand up for America’s international obligations to uphold marijuana prohibition.

Critics of marijuana prohibition, on the other hand, point to the social harms caused by criminalizing millions of people around the world every year for using a substance that’s less harmful than society’s intoxicant of choice, alcohol. A 2010 study published in the medical journal Lancet ranked alcohol as the most harmful inebriating drug of all, even above heroin and crack cocaine. Tobacco, similarly, was ranked roughly as damaging to society as cocaine.

Despite the latest science on drug abuse and the potential medical value of marijuana-based drugs, the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 considers marijuana to be a Schedule I drug with no medical value whatsoever. That scheduling means the U.S. government considers the herb to be more dangerous than substances like oxycodone, morphine and opium.

DEA officials who signed the letter to Leahy and Grassley also warned that officials in Colorado and Washington who engage in the legalization rulemaking process are committing felony crimes.

“Indeed, those who carry out the Colorado and Washington legislation are aiding and abetting violation of federal law, itself a felony under federal law,” former DEA administrator Robert Bonner wrote. “This may not be the perfect storm, but it can only lead to the perfect train wreck. That is why we are urging Attorney General Holder, as he did in the case of the Arizona immigration law, to file a lawsuit challenging the Colorado and Washington laws without delay.”

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, sees things differently. “The former DEA chiefs’ statement can best be seen as a self-interested plea to validate the costly and failed policies they championed but that Americans are now rejecting at the ballot box,” he said in an advisory. “They obviously find it hard to admit that – at least with respect to marijuana – their legacy will be much the same as a previous generation of agents who once worked for the federal Bureau of Prohibition enforcing the nation’s alcohol prohibition laws.”

The Department of Justice has not announced whether any such lawsuits are forthcoming, continually saying that a review of the matter is underway. President Obama, who’s admitted to smoking marijuana as a young man, has previously said he does not support drug legalization of any kind, but as a state senator in Illinois in 2004 he called the war on drugs “an utter failure” and backed removing criminal penalties for small marijuana possession offenses.

It’s not clear if Obama’s views have evolved since then. Nevertheless, Obama said in December that he does not support legalization “at this point,” but added that the government has “bigger fish to fry” than adults who consent to using marijuana in states that permit it. His administration, however, has doggedly pursued merchants that sell marijuana in states that have legalized the drug for medical use.
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Photo: Solphoto / Shutterstock.com.

Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
 
 
 
 
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