WASHINGTON — After years of public clashes between his administration and the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration he inherited, President Obama will soon be choosing a new administrator to run the DEA. The White House seems interested in keeping the DEA changeover a quiet, bureaucratic affair.
Drug policy advocates have something else in mind: They're already preparing a large-scale effort to turn the nomination into a big, loud moment in the debate over the war on drugs.
The sound could reach the Republican presidential nomination. Groups say they're laying the groundwork to try and harness the bipartisan criminal justice advocacy movement — which is already playing a role in the GOP nominating contest — to force a wider conversation about drug laws in general. That means readying lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill, preparing to flood the media with stories about drug policy, and activating grassroots networks to pressure lawmakers and the White House.
The departure of embattled the Drug Enforcement Administration administrator Michele Leonhart was expected but not planned: The White House does not have a successor ready to be nominated. The search for a new DEA chief is underway, but the administration has not given a public timeline for that process.
Even before the nomination is made, though, a drug policy advocacy effort will be lobbying the White House, too. The Marijuana Policy Project has met with administration officials before, and they're going to try and do it again ahead of the selection of a DEA nominee, said Dan Riffle, director of policy for the group. Other groups that have broadly praised the administration for its rhetoric on drugs, including the Drug Policy Alliance and others, also said they planned to lobby Congress and the White House for a DEA administrator at least publicly skeptical of the war on drugs.
"Any time we get a chance to insert drug policy into political debate in Washington, we take advantage of that opportunity," Riffle said. "It is the Drug Enforcement [Administration,] they do have an oversight role over research into medical marijuana. So it's entirely appropriate to say [the confirmation process] is and should be about drug policy."
He said the next DEA nomination process could be the time for a conversation about whether the DEA needs to be a part of the government at all.
"We've heard President Obama say time and time again that we can't arrest our way out of the drug problem, that drugs are a public health issue not a criminal justice issue, that the War On Drugs is over," Riffle said. "Do we really want to spend resources continuing to try and arrest and prosecute our way out of drugs?"
The White House has signaled it thinks debates over the drug war should be reserved for policymakers, not law enforcement. But nomination deliberations and debates often become proxy fights for larger political issues in Washington. Over the last few years, criminal justice issues — and, in particular, drug policy — have become the locus for a younger generation of bipartisanship. Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, and Republican Rand Paul recently introduced a bill to legalize medical pot at the federal level, for instance.
Many advocates of ending the drug war don't see the DEA nomination battle as a chance to push on Obama, whose rhetoric on drugs they largely support, but rather as a chance to show that Congress, too, has moved on from a 1980s mentality on drugs, which Leonhart's critics say she embodied.
"The politics around crime have shifted," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Everyone is talking about sentencing reform...I think a reform-oriented DEA head could get through. And I think now is the time to go for it."
For the moment, however, some major names in the bipartisan criminal justice movement aren't touching the DEA nomination fight. Representatives at Washington's major groups representing the bridge between libertarians and progressives on criminal justice either didn't comment or declined to speak about the DEA on the record.
Despite the focus on Congress, the advocates' efforts could force the White House into the center of a debate it doesn't really want to have over the agency. The administration has watched a number of seemingly uncontroversial items on the legislative calendar blow up into four-alarm controversies, and no one in the White House will be surprised if the DEA process goes that way, though they note the fights over nominees have rarely gone the oppositions' way in the end.
When it comes to having a debate over drug policy, the White House prefers to stage to be somewhere other than the DEA, especially after a year or more of attacks from the right that the president is anti-law enforcement.
"I think those views are important in the head of [the Justice Department,] the Attorney General," White House Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz told BuzzFeed News Wednesday, a day before new Attorney General Loretta Lynch was confirmed by the Senate, when asked if DEA nomination process was a chance to have a national debate about drug policy. "I think the policy conversations you're talking about would probably be more at that level."
Many observers expect the White House to look within the DEA to find a new leader for the law enforcement agency, meaning that the pick will probably from the ranks of agents for whom drug laws are not malleable. Jon Adler, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, said it's not fair for advocates to expect the head of the DEA to publicly oppose the laws he or she is required to enforce.
"Maybe it's a bad example because I'm reluctant to say anything nice about the IRS, but we beat up on the IRS all the time and the IRS is only administering and enforcing the laws passed by Congress," Adler said. "Maybe I shouldn't reference that. But it's more that they are the enforcement body, they're not the legislating body."
Alder's group does take policy stances, however. And they're not exactly in tune with the advocates he'll face when the DEA nomination eventually comes up.
"If we minimize the [DEA's] impact on the peddlers of death, the body count will continue to rise," he said. "We oppose any reduction in the drug-trafficking sentencing, and we oppose the legalization of marijuana or any other schedule one controlled substance."
One place the two sides agree on, though, is the unpredictability of the current Congress on issues relating to crime and punishment. Adler, as well as the drug policy advocates, pointed to the bipartisan criminal justice movement to suggest that the Republican-controlled Senate won't be as friendly to a throw-the-book-at-them DEA chief as it may have been just a few years ago. The policy advocates hope the link between libertarian criminal justice advocates and progressive social justice advocates will help turn a potentially sleepy DEA confirmation hearing into something more lively. Adler worries that the Republican presidential candidates in the Senate will try and use the confirmation process to make the DEA hearings about boosting their public image.
"We're at the beginning of campaign season. So we've got people with their own agendas that may even vary from their normal agendas. Rand Paul is running for president, so I'm sure he'll have strong views on the topic, as will Ted Cruz," he said. "Certainly what we've seen is a breakdown in the hardcore party lines on this issue...so we're going to have less of a clinical approach to this in Congress."
The resignation of Leonhart didn't seem to disappoint anyone in Washington. After Democrats and Republicans in Congress signed a statement expressing no confidence in her leadership, the White House let her go without even the most meager of public defenses. Leonhart had not made many friends during her tenure at the top of the DEA, which began in 2007 when President George W. Bush appointed her acting director of the Justice Department agency. President Obama stuck with Leonhart, asking the Senate to make her the official director of the agency in 2010. Since that time, she tangled with the administration over marijuana policy and drug sentencing and oversaw the DEA's lackluster response to a prostitution scandal that was ultimately her undoing.
In 2010, when Leonhart was up for her confirmation, though, Republicans — led by Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions — pushed her to publicly dismiss drug decriminalization and legalization efforts. She obliged. The split in the GOP between law-and-order Republicans like Sessions and libertarians like Paul remains wide and those in Senate GOP leadership tend to be more like Sessions on justice issues than Paul.
But some drug policy advocates say it's possible for the next DEA nominee to be an ally of the criminal justice advocacy movement when it comes to drugs without openly embracing it.
Leonhart rankled advocates by refusing to endorse Obama administration efforts to end mandatory-minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and publicly dismissing administration-supported efforts to de-prioritize some nonviolent drug prosecutions in favor of going after more dangerous drug dealers. When Leonhart called out the president over his claim that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol, advocates were upset the White House didn't do more to silence her. They hope the result of any DEA nomination process is an administrator that will at least talk the administration talk on the drug war, even if he or she as chief drug warrior won't walk the walk when it comes to enforcement.
"We absolutely believe and will say publicly that at the very minimum this person should have respect for state laws and this administration's stated policies. That's something [Leonhart] did not have," said Taylor West, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, the trade group for the pot industry in states with some kind of legalized cultivation and sale. "We would certainly push for somebody who at the very minimum recognized they worked for the administration."
Correction: Karen Tandy was the first woman administrator of the DEA. This piece originally misstated the name of the first woman DEA administrator.