It’s a gut-wrenching time for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) — the last bastion of resistance to the federal legalization of marijuana. The DEA, which happens to be celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, was created in 1973 as an anti-drug organization, when President Richard Nixon began the war on drugs to push back against the importation of “mota,” or “ganja,” as marijuana was popularly known, and other dangerous drugs.
In those days, weed arrived in the U.S. primarily from Mexico and Jamaica along with other drugs like “Mexican mud” and “black tar” heroin, which were also inundating the country in the 1960s and 1970s. U.S. culture was generally conservative at the time, and Americans and their government were shocked by the hippie revolution and the liberalism that was displayed, in part, through drug use. There was pushback to this counterculture movement, and the government proclaimed rock and rollers, hippies, drug users, and certain other groups to be antiestablishment, un-American revolutionaries — vilifying them as unsavory, fringe, and even dangerous members of society and causing marijuana users to face stigmatization and harsh punishment for decades. Countless marijuana smugglers and users were jailed, thanks especially to minimum mandatory sentencing guidelines that gave judges little or no room to negotiate prison terms.
During the Barack Obama administration, the federal government — working within the confines of politics, law, and public opinion — softened the authoritative stance previous administrations had taken regarding cannabis. It was during and after Obama’s presidency that many states began to decriminalize, and in some cases legalize, marijuana, to the point that the federal government became faced with a major decision: Should federal power be used to push back against those who dared challenge the traditional policy approach?
Fast-forward to the present. Congress is actively seeking to decriminalize marijuana, and the Joe Biden administration has leveraged the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to petition the DEA to remove marijuana from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and reclassify it as a Schedule III drug. HHS, the principal federal health agency, is now leaning on the law enforcement side of government to ask for the drug to be reclassified within the CSA.
It’s hard to argue against medicine and science. The agency everyone is waiting on now is the DEA.
Within the DEA, meanwhile, this is an angst-filled moment. Many DEA agents have died because of marijuana, and many others have been shot while toiling in the mountains of Mexico and around the world, in places where cannabis plantations thrived and were targeted for destruction. DEA agent Enrique Camarena, for example, is considered by many a legend and an icon — a martyr killed because he discovered “El Bufalo,” the largest marijuana plantation destroyed in Mexico at the time. That discovery led to his torture and death in 1985. His deep legacy within the DEA includes an emotional resistance toward marijuana legalization and decriminalization.
The drug war has been, and remains, real to these agents, analysts, task force officers, and other “narcs” who have done their part to enforce both the CSA and state laws. But like soldiers in any conflict or war, law enforcement professionals know that ultimately, they are the instruments of policy. And that policy is now changing, steadily moving toward decriminalization, legalization, and destigmatization at a faster pace than anyone could have predicted. Many DEA agents and law enforcement professionals, current and retired, see the enforcement of these policy changes as a betrayal of the oath of office by anyone who swore to uphold the law. As an institution, law enforcement professionals find it difficult to accept that American leadership at all levels is so broadly and consistently in favor of legalization, regardless of the political party holding the majority in Congress. But the law will likely change soon.
As laws continue to change, marijuana possession, sales, and use will likely soon be legal across the country at both the state and federal levels. Societal and cultural change is sometimes uncomfortable, but it’s always inevitable. Anyone with doubts about the approaching tsunami of change regarding marijuana should consider that these changes are not happening on a whim, without serious thought or sufficient time to reason. Rather, these changes are the result of decades of discussion, critique, questions, studies, and evolving societal views.
We all need to get behind it. My esteemed colleagues, friends, and policymakers in the DEA need to get behind these policy changes and put marijuana into the “bad memory” category of reflection, never forgetting those who died and worked, not in vain, but in the pursuit of what was considered by government, at the time, as a danger to society. It’s time for the DEA to move on to more “clear and present dangers,” especially fentanyl, and other more imminent and deadly threats to our nation.
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