It might not seem like much, but as far as the DEA goes, it’s a landmark.

DEA Chief Chuck RosenbergThe agency’s new chief, appointed this summer to replace his scandal-plagued predecessor, said in early August that marijuana is safer than heroin. Obvious as that fact is to the rest of the world, in the anti-drug community it’s a major admission.

Chuck Rosenberg was appointed to replace Michelle Leonhart. She resigned from the DEA after trying to cover up a scandal involving narcotics agents, Colombian drug traffickers, and prostitutes. Leonhart was a staunch, long-time opponent of any degree of reform in marijuana law.

Leonhart prioritized cannabis highly

Indeed, Leonhart made cannabis the agency’s top priority, ahead of much more dangerous drugs such as heroin and cocaine. Her departure was seen as a chance for the Obama administration to enforce its evolving views on legal marijuana.

Though not a supporter of full legalization, President Barack Obama has directed his administration to lay off medical cannabis in states where it’s legal. That declaration was followed by new laws, approved by Congress, that protect MMJ patients and providers across the country.

Rosenberg hasn’t staked a solid position on prohibition and reform one way or the other. But his remarks hint that change is coming, even at the top of the nation’s most notorious narc squad.

Rosenberg said he still believes marijuana is “harmful and dangerous” but conceded that “heroin is clearly more dangerous than marijuana.” It was the first time any high-ranking official at the DEA had acknowledged the well-established fact.

The comments were meant to clarify an earlier statement by Rosenberg that cannabis is “probably not” as dangerous as heroin. Officially, the DEA still takes the position that marijuana is as hazardous as LSD, ecstasy, and powerful opiate drugs. That approach could eventually change, if Rosenberg’s comments are any hint.

Cannabis “schedule 1” drug under CSA

Cannabis is currently categorized as a so-called “schedule 1” drug under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. That means the government considers it medically useless, highly dangerous, and highly addictive. Congress, the DEA, and the White House have traditionally refused even to entertain the possibility of rescheduling.

That is no longer true. Lawmakers are already pushing legislation that would reschedule marijuana under the CSA, making it more widely available as a medicine. Rescheduling could also pave the way for full legalization at the federal level.

Early efforts at rescheduling are tentative at best and would merely create a more lenient subcategory for cannabis under schedule 1. Even a move to schedule 2 or 3 would leave marijuana highly restricted. But it would mark a big step forward.

Rosenberg not planning legal reform

cannabisRosenberg said he doesn’t plan any major legal reforms in the short term and would continue enforcing existing federal laws. But he said the DEA’s focus would shift to “the biggest and most important cases there are.” That means bureau chiefs should target “the most important cases in their jurisdictions,” he said.

That, he said, means “heroin, opioids, meth and cocaine, in roughly that order, and marijuana tends to come in at the back of the pack.”

Pro-marijuana groups praised the comments but said they wouldn’t come as a surprise to much of anyone.

“It’s sort of remarkable that a DEA chief simply saying heroin is more dangerous than marijuana could actually make news,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “I guess that’s a reflection of how out of touch his predecessor was, that she couldn’t bring herself to simply state the obvious.”

About the Author: Matt Brooks

Matt is a journalist from San Francisco who has specialized in marijuana policy for more than six years.

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