Each political movement has its own unique cultural history and esoteric narrative for use in recruiting new members and/or enlightening outsiders to the reasoning behind their cause. This is true with the American cannabis community. A visitor to a NORML meeting will find that every member can recite a graduate level history of prohibition from memory, complete with the various heroes and villains who have made this country’s relationship with its the most used illicit substance so hilariously depressing until very recently.
Right after this year’s 4/20, the unofficial marijuana appreciation holiday, one of those villains, Michele Leonhart, the head of the DEA and quite possibly the worst person to serve in the Obama administration, resigned in disgrace after the latest in a series of highly embarrassing fuck ups for that organization. Thanks to the work of activists both before and after Leonhart’s announcement, this news has quickly become a catalyst for others outside of the reform movement to call for systemic change regarding cannabis and other issues relating to drug enforcement. Simply put, this massive success means that drug reformists are now a serious political force inside of our nations capital.
Leonhart herself was an absolutely terrible spokesperson for the powerful federal agency. The former police officer and DEA special agent seemed to be unaware of the cultural shifts in drug policies since the 1980s, steadfastly adhering to hilarious anachronistic views equating pot with cocaine or meth in terms of its threat to public health.
Since her original nomination by George Bush (which was almost scuttled when Herb Kohl took her to task for the DEA’s idiotic policy of restricting pain medications for elderly nursing home patients), Leonhart has personified the worst aspects of the drug war. She claimed that the wanton cartel violence against civilians (including thousands of children) in Mexico was a “sign of success” for militarized prohibition. She refused to support bipartisan sentencing reforms against mandatory minimums, something that Grover Norquist of all people even liked. She continued to justify the ban on American grown (and entirely non-psychoactive) industrial hemp, which pissed off Mitch McConnell and his base of Kentucky agricultural interests something fierce in 2014. She has also been a frequent and objectively absurd critic of President Obama and his statements that correctly identified alcohol as a more dangerous substance than cannabis (all which begs the question as to why he held her over from his predecessor for SIX YEARS).
With Leonhart leaving power after seven years of implementing and enforcing policies that ranged from questionable to immoral to insane, there are now a slew of articles from established media sources like the Atlantic asking questions that should be sending shivers down the spines of the prohibitionists. Despite the fact that her resignation had (at least ostensibly) little to do with her anti-pot stance, her departure has highlighted a culture of corruption and mismanagement within the DEA, and has led many to question the entire purpose and mission statement of the agency itself.
This evolving mainstream recognition of the inherent stupidity and evil in our current drug enforcement system, particularly with regards to cannabis, is no mistake. The cause to force Leonhart out of office has been a facet of the legalization movement for years. The reform movement followed every misstep that Leonhart or the DEA made during her tenure, and responded en masse with press releases and social media campaigns calling for her resignation. Advocates also forged critical relationships with federal representatives on both sides of the partisan divide by using specific policy local interests. This strategy guarantees long-term compliance from a representative far more than a simple campaign donation, which means that the cause of cannabis is creating the type of political sustainability and status that other business interests only dream about.
The fact that Leonhart’s resignation coincided with the marijuana holiday is also no mistake. In mass media over the last decade, every 4/20 has featured less and less b-roll footage of stoned college students partying on the quad, and more professional/accredited cannabis experts talking about the real damage that prohibition has caused. Folks who were simply enjoying a peaceful day of public smoking are provoked into signing onto mailing lists and volunteering for campaigns, building a new generation of motivated activist networks across the country to support legalization efforts.
And while it might seem crazy to think that lobbyists could destroy an entire federal agency, a precedent for this type work has already been seen. The NRA almost single-handedly prevented a permanent head of its bête noire, the ATF, from being confirmed for five years (a period that spanned two different presidents and three congresses). Now the Drug Policy Alliance and Americans for Safe Access are calling for Obama to name a new reform-minded DEA chief. And while having a non-insane DEA chief is unlikely to happen, the fight to confirm Leonhart’s replacement could serve as an even larger platform for reformists to engage the public (especially with pot-friendly Rand Paul running for President while serving in the Senate).
Without recognition of the power of the modern cannabis reform movement, the resignation of Leonhart would have been simply treated as another example of Obama mismanaging federal law enforcement. The Secret Service and FBI have all had massive scandals similar to the DEA’s recent travails, but no one is seriously questioning whether abolishing those organizations would serve the public good. Instead, Leonhart and the DEA at large are being excoriated by incredibly saavy and politically sophisticated groups that understand the media cycle and how to exploit it.
Reformers have realized that unlike drug traffickers, the apparatus of prohibition is both extremely hierarchical and very public. This means, ironically, that a failed strategy of the drug warriors (identifying and targeting powerful individuals for action) is now being used to undue the entire structure of prohibition – only with far more success.
The inside joke in the legalization movement is that 4/20 is the absolute worst time to schedule politically motivated events or call for mass movement on a particular issue. However, this year that date provided what is perhaps the greatest federal-level success for the cannabis community to date. On its own, this tactic of playing offense against the individuals inside of agencies that enforce awful drug laws is fantastic, but in conjunction with the electoral campaigns to end prohibition (which grow stronger in people and donations every time a negative DEA story is in the news), organizations like the MPP, ASA, DPA, or NORML could soon demand the same respect that the NRA or AARP receive in Washington DC.
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