Holder Wants His DEA Chief to Get On Board with 'Smart on Crime'

Attorney General Eric Holder just took a big step this week to further his "Smart on Crime" initiative for better sentencing laws and drug policies: he asked his anti-marijuana, anti-sentencing reduction DEA chief Michele Leonhart to get in line.

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Attorney General Eric Holder just took a big step this week to further his "Smart on Crime" initiative for better sentencing laws and drug policies: he asked his anti-marijuana, anti-sentencing-reduction Drug Enforcement Agency chief Michele Leonhart to get in line. The problem is Leonhart, who once refused to acknowledge health differences between pot, heroin, and cocaine, is both personally and professionally dedicated to keeping drug laws unchanged.

After giving the impression that she opposed the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would reduce the length of mandatory minimum sentences, Leonhart met with Holder and ending up calling her comments a "misunderstanding," according to the Huffington Post. Last month the Obama administration announced plans to pardon hundreds of non-violent drug offenders sentenced under the "Tough on Crime" mandatory minimum policies of the 80s. Congress also pushed the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act, which would lower sentences for non-violent federal drug crimes. While testifying before Congress Leonhart stressed the importance of mandatory minimums, and later refused to clarify whether or not she supports them.

That's when the chat with Holder happened. Later the DEA released a statement that read: "The Administrator believes mandatory minimums in general can be an important tool in DEA investigations, but she supports the Attorney General’s sentencing reform initiative to ensure those sentences are imposed appropriately."

This isn't the first time Leonhart had opposed the increasingly popular shift away from tough policies. Last month she said that the rise in legalized marijuana, something Holder has explicitly supported, would only make the DEA "fight harder," and added that her concern is that kids are being bombarded by messages that pot isn't a big deal, according to The Huffington Post. "It's important to have the facts about marijuana put out there in ways that kids, teens, young adults, parents can look at it and see that what they've been sold — that this is no big deal — is not true," she said.

But Leonhart, who joined the DEA in the early 80s and was nominated for her current position by President Bush, seems to have a very dated understanding of the truth about marijuana. In 2011 she denied a request to reclassify cannabis, rejecting the idea that marijuana has medicinal benefits. In January, Leonhart got a standing ovation from sheriffs for slamming Obama's comments that pot is similar to alcohol. "She was honest," Mike H. Leidholt, president of the National Sheriffs’ Association, told the Boston Herald. “She may get fired. But she was honest.”

So far the only calls to have Leonhart fired are from supporters of liberal drug policies. After that speech, the Marijuana Policy Project released a statement claiming "she is clearly unfit for her current position," and Democratic Colorado Rep. Jared Polis described her as "incompetent" and called for her to resign. A scolding from Holder is the closest she's gotten.

The thing is, Leonhart's archaic view of drug policies isn't just bothering activists. Leonhart's aversion to hemp led to Kentucky's shipment of hemp seeds being seized by the DEA this week. The seeds are part of a farming initiative for veterans personally attached to the Farm Bill by Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul. In general, Republicans may not be as in favor of legalized marijuana as liberals, but they are more in favor of the kind of smart on crime policies that would lead to fewer sentences, less crowded jails and more balanced budgets. Our nation's commitment to the war on pot, hemp and other drugs only goes so far.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.