Why the DEA Chief's Embarassing Refusal to Admit Heroin is More Harmful Than Pot Went Viral

Last week, DEA chief Michele Leonhart got quite a bit of attention with congressional testimony that left a lot of people shaking their heads in frustration. Here's what everyone is talking about:

"Is crack worse for a person than marijuana?" Polis asked Leonhart.

"I believe all illegal drugs are bad," Leonhart answered.

Polis continued, asking whether methamphetamines and heroin were worse for a person's health than marijuana.

"Again, all drugs, they're illegal drugs," Leonhart started, before being cut off by Polis.

"Yes, no, or I don't know?" Polis said. "If you don't know, you can look this up. You should know this as the chief administrator for the Drug Enforcement Agency. I'm asking a very straightforward question: Is heroin worse for someone's health than marijuana?"

Leonhart ducked again, repeating, "All illegal drugs are bad."

The whole thing ought to speak for itself, but it's worth repeating that the person who is literally in charge of stopping everyone from taking drugs is somehow incapable of explaining to us the difference between the various drugs we shouldn't be taking. It's her job to know a lot about this, and her complete lack of insight is less than impressive.

What makes this moment so significant is that people really reacted to it, and the video has now been viewed hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube. I doubt it's news to anybody that drug warriors have a tendency towards being obtuse when asked simple questions, but Leonhart's feigned ignorance is so vividly depicted in this exchange that she managed to captivate everyone in the worst possible way.

Who, if not this woman, should be able to speak intelligently about the dangers of drugs? By attempting to downplay marijuana's reputation for relative safety, she ends up coming across as oblivious or indifferent to the basic facts about drugs that everyone learns in school. The idea that there's a hierarchy of drug dangers is so widely understood that there's really no sense in even challenging it.

That's why the question wasn't even that big of a trap. There is simply no reason at all that the DEA administrator can't just tell everyone outright that, no, marijuana is not as dangerous as heroin. That's just a fact. It's the only answer she can give that won't make her look foolish, and not looking like a fool in front of Congress and the American people ought to be more important than maintaining such an absurd stance as this.

The irony of it all is that Leonhart's silly statement comes at a time when more people are paying attention to the issue than ever before. When the public is exhibiting increased skepticism about our drug policy priorities, the need for candid and intelligent commentary from public officials is that much greater. If more people are asking questions about the issue, then our policy-makers should be giving longer answers, not shorter ones.

The power to enforce these laws should never be separated from the obligation to articulate whatever wisdom and necessity underscores them. When political posturing compromises a spokesperson's ability to speak intelligently about their own area of expertise, it's a sign that something is wrong. In this case, that something is our nation's ongoing war on marijuana, a fiasco so embarrassing and inexplicable that insisting the stuff is as bad as heroin remains a top argument in its defense.


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