When Colorado U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, quizzed Drug Enforcement Administration head Michele Leonhart last week, it seems like he may have been trying to make a simple point — that marijuana is not as bad for a person as heroin or methamphetamine.
He made that point and in the process made Leonhart look confused or disingenuous. He also became something of an internet sensation, with video of the question-and-answer session quickly posted on all manner of blog sites.
Polis, who has been extremely committed and active in the cause of drug reform, asked Leonhart simple questions, which by and large she didn’t answer.
POLIS: Is crack worse for a person than marijuana?
LEONHART: I believe all the illegal drugs –
POLIS: Is methamphetamine worse for somebody’s health than marijuana?
LEONHART: I don’t think any illegal drug –
POLIS: Is heroin worse for someone’s health than marijuana?
LEONHART: Again, all the drugs –
POLIS: I mean, either ‘yes, no, or I don’t know’. I mean, if you don’t know, you can look this up. You should know this as the chief administrator for the Drug Enforcement Agency (sic). I’m asking you a very straightforward question. Is heroin worse for someone’s health than marijuana?
LEONHART: All the illegal drugs are bad.
POLIS: Does this mean you don’t know?
LEONHART: Heroin causes an addiction that causes many problems, that’s very hard to kick.
POLIS: Does that mean that the health impact is worse than marijuana, is that what you’re telling me?
LEONHART: I think that you are asking a subjective question.
“It is refreshing to see a member of Congress directly question the failed policies and misleading rhetoric of federal drug enforcement officials,” said Mason Tvert, a leader in the pro-Amendment 64 Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol.
“The DEA is clearly more concerned with keeping marijuana illegal than with the facts. Objectively, marijuana is far less harmful than alcohol and than any of the substances that Polis asked her about,” Tvert said.
All polling so far released shows that Coloradans favor legalization of marijuana, with some polls showing a better than 2-1 ratio in favor.
Polis has mixed it up with federal officials over drug policy before. His grilling of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on why his agency continues to work to shut down medical marijuana businesses that have been approved in Colorado and other medical marijuana states also made waves.
These days, almost any question of federal drug policy has a connection to Colorado which is among several states that have formally requested that the DEA reclassify marijuana to acknowledge that it has medical value and should not have the same legal status as heroin and LSD.
Asked why Polis is so outspoken on this issue, his communications director, Chris Fritzgerald, said by email: “Congressman Polis feels strongly that the drug war hurts Americans, wastes billions of dollars of taxpayer money, fosters drug-related violence, and does nothing to help Americans confronting serious addiction. Marijuana prohibition has clearly failed and he feels it should be regulated and taxed, much as we have done for alcohol and tobacco.”
The ever controversial Leonhart said last year that increasing drug-war violence, including the deaths of hundreds of Mexican children, is a sign that the War on Drugs is going well.
Here is a short video of the Polis-Leonhart exchange. A longer video is farther down in the story.
Earlier in her testimony to Congress, Leonhart said that her top priority is to reduce the abuse of prescription drugs. Polis told her that studies have shown that medical marijuana is often used as a substitute for prescription painkillers and he asked her whether she would endorse medical marijuana as part of a strategy to reduce prescription drug abuse. As in answering his earlier questions about which drugs are more harmful or more addictive, she was vague in her answers.
This longer video, includes the footage above but goes on to include questioning about prescription drug abuse.
In Colorado, newly appointed local DEA chief Barbra Roach made headlines not too long ago when she said that in moving to Colorado, she would not live in any Colorado community that allowed medical marijuana dispensaries. At that time, Polis noted that it may be better to live near a dispensary than to live near some liquor stores.
(Image of Polis courtesy of his of his office)