Is Heroin More Dangerous Than Marijuana?

June 23, 2012  •  Jerod Gunsberg, Los Angeles Criminal Defense Lawyer

This is one of the questions that Drug Enforcement Agency Administrator Michele Leonhart refused to answer directly when she testified before Congress this week

This is hardly a difficult question, especially for anyone who knows anything about how drugs are regulated in the United States.  Ms. Leonhart has received a tremendous amount of criticism for dancing around this question while under oath.  Thousands of people have commented online, pointing out what pretty much everyone already knows: In terms of its addictive properties, physiological effects, and overall impact on human health, heroin is much more dangerous than marijuana.

It is easy to ridicule Ms. Leonhart’s testimony as ignorant and misguided. Many people have done so.  This criticism, however, fails to recognize an important connection between her words and the DEA’s actions with respect to marijuana.

As a criminal defense lawyer in Los Angeles, I come across lots of otherwise well-informed people who don’t fully grasp that in many respects the DEA actually treats marijuana as if it was a much more dangerous drug.  Her testimony wasn’t just words.  We are all aware of situations where, for political reasons, elected and appointed public officials say things they know aren’t true.  You might be tempted to conclude that the head of the DEA had some political reason for not providing the right answer to an easy question.

Here, however, her testimony genuinely reflects DEA policy that marijuana is dangerous.  This attitude helps explain why DEA agents have raided many marijuana dispensary in Los Angeles. Ms. Leonhart’s position also squares with the stepped-up enforcement against marijuana dispensaries and landlords who lease commercial space to dispensaries.   Federal law enforcement agents are increasingly threatening everyone with seizure and forfeiture actions, money laundering charges, etc.

Factually and scientifically, equating the dangers of heroin and marijuana is absurd.  Unfortunately, it is also consistent with the DEA’s recent actions.

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