The U.S. is Getting a New Attorney General and Head of the DEA: What Does This Mean for the Cannabis Movement?

Published on April 27, 2015 · Last updated July 28, 2020

The United States is experiencing quite a shakeup in both DEA and Attorney General leadership, and the moves could mean big things for the cannabis movement. The first notable change is happening at the Drug Enforcement Agency, where tough-on-cannabis Michele Leonhart, who built her career on becoming the first female DEA agent to head up a field office and currently serves as the chairwoman, administrator, and head of the administration, will be retiring in May amid scandals over sex parties in Colombia featuring DEA agents, cartel-funded prostitutes, and some very poor judgment.

The resignation appears to be a long time coming — an internal Department of Justice watchdog report found that the majority of lawmakers in the House Oversight Committee voted that they had “no confidence” in Leonhart's leadership. She has faced scrutiny for years, particularly from the Obama administration. During her tenure as head of the DEA, Leonhart used the example of escalating border violence, including the deaths of over 1,000 children killed in the War on Drugs, as a “sign of success in the fight against drugs.”

In 2012, during a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, Representative Jared Polis (D-CO) pressed Leonhart about whether drugs like methamphetamine and crack caused greater harm to public health when compared to marijuana, but she repeatedly dodged the question, refusing to make any concessions about cannabis and whether it is less harmful than heroin. Cannabis advocates across the United States are cheering Leonhart’s departure, recognizing that her adamant anti-cannabis stance was only hindering progress for legalization.

However, Leonhart's departure comes with a swinging door as another anti-cannabis figure, Loretta Lynch, enters the ring. Lynch has officially been sworn in as the replacement for Attorney General Eric Holder. Leonhart’s departure from the DEA has the potential to influence upward mobility for the cannabis movement, but only so far as Lynch will allow it.

Former Attorney General Eric Holder’s stance on cannabis was mostly laissez-faire, leaving the states to do as they please without interference. If Lynch wanted to shake things up and crack down on medically and recreationally legalized states, she would be well within her rights as Attorney General to do so. However, while Loretta Lynch may not approve of cannabis, she is far more likely to take the backseat regarding state cannabis laws, à la the laissez-faire position of Eric Holder.

What do these personnel changes mean for the cannabis movement? It's too early to tell, but from the DEA's standpoint, the organization appears to have considerably softened its stance on cannabis, so this could be a great opportunity to bring in new leadership that has a progressive view paralleling that of the rapidly-growing cannabis movement. As for the new Attorney General, we'll have to see whether Ms. Lynch's personal opinion of cannabis clouds her duties or if she'll respect the legal framework that's being built across the country.

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Lisa Rough
Lisa Rough
Lisa is a former associate editor at Leafly, where she specialized in legislative cannabis policy and industry topics.
View Lisa Rough's articles
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