Sunday, January 3, 2016

Scrabble Games

What do we know about now resigned DEA head Michele Leonhart? My interest piqued when I read her 2011 statement to the Washington Post that Mexican drug cartel violence - including against women and children - signaled drug war success. That cartels were like "caged animals attacking one another". Previously, I assumed DEA was unaware the violent consequences of prohibitive North American drug trade policy. Wrong. Leonhart signaled awareness. More: she signaled her understanding that drug trade violence signaled successful drug enforcement administration.


By that standard of success, it's easier for me to understand Leonhart's March 12, 2015 testimony to the Senate Appropriations Committee for 2016 federal law enforcement budget:
Appearing with other federal law enforcement bosses - ATF, FBI, US Marshals - the purpose of her appearance was to request $2.092 billion to fund 2016 DEA operations. Her testimony and budget show drug administration priorities cast first in terms national security and criminal violence - "disrupting and dismantling those drug trafficking organizations posing the greatest threat to the United States".

In the second paragraph of testimony (again, PDF), Leonhart isolates wins contra Mexican groups:
That Chapo escaped supermax a second time a few summer months later  - whether by motorcycle via a mile-long tunnel 62 feet underground or whether by simply walking out the front door of Altiplano supermax - is relevant for re-evaluating the terms drug war success.

How and why do we repeat observation of inexplicable tactical mysteries and coincidences? For Leonhart, national insecurity - border insecurity, violence, intimidation, et al - signal simultaneously:
  • policy success,
  • security risk. 
Of that combination, Leonhart herself hypothesized: "It may seem contradictory". Purely in terms of national security, American drug war violence exists in Schrödinger Paradox of policy. 


Leonhart's priorities concern drug distribution and sale from Mexicans to Californias, Chicagoans, Ohioans, and folks along I-95. Those priorities contrast with the adverse drug use outcomes Leonhart documents in writing:
Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 43,982 people died of a drug overdose in the United States in 2013, the most recent year for which information is available. Nearly 52 percent of those drug overdose deaths (22,767) involved prescription drugs. Of those deaths, 71 percent (16,235) involved an opioid analgesic, also known as prescription painkillers. The report also reflected significant increases in heroin related deaths - 8,257 people died of a heroin overdose in 2013, nearly tripling since 2010. 
Per Leonhart's 2013 data, opioids made and sold by Americans are ~2x more frequently lethal than opioids made and sold by Mexicans. Top-line overdose data from 2014, published by CDC December 2015, is rather worse, but consistent with long-term trend:
  1. During 2014, a total of 47,055 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States, representing a 1-year increase of 6.5%, from 13.8 per 100,000 persons in 2013 to 14.7 per 100,000 persons in 2014.
  2. Since 2000, the rate of deaths from drug overdoses has increased 137%, including a 200% increase in the rate of overdose deaths involving opioids (opioid pain relievers and heroin).


Among the questions posed to Leonhart, three of four a) concerned opioids and b) were posed by white women from Northern USA states:
  • Barbara Mikulski (Maryland), context:
    • Competing claims regarding the number of heroin users in Baltimore: 19K (mayor) vs 60K (HIDTA, claiming Baltimore Department of Health). The latter, as an aside, features revealing hypotheses regarding the transmission of heroin addiction from HIDTA Director Tom Carr:
      The Baltimore Department of Health estimates that in a city with a population of 645,000 residents, an estimated 60,000 of them are drug addicts; with up to 48,000 of those addicts addicted to heroin.Due to the severity of the problem, Baltimore has been designated by the federal government as an HIDTA, a High Density Drug Trafficking Area.  The HIDTA program is a drug-prohibition enforcement program run by the United States ONDCP (Office of Drug Control Policy), and refers as well to a geographic location in which the program is headquartered.The HIDTA headquarters are ordinarily established in geographic locations regarded as major drug trafficking zones.  Additionally, Baltimore’s designation makes it eligible for special federal assistance to Baltimore police. According to the director of the Washington/Baltimore HIDTA program, Tom Carr, the Baltimore heroin epidemic started in the 50’s, and has since become an ingrained part of the culture of the city. Carr notes that Baltimore is a “heroin town”, and that the habit of heroin addiction is frequently passed down through the generations; almost a “rite of passage” for some people in Baltimore.
In the March 12, 2015 budget request hearings for 2016 federal law enforcement, directors for ATF, FBI, DEA, were unable to clearly answer Senator Mikulski's question whether or not DoJ convened a joint law enforcement, medical task force. None of the panelists - Director-level, federal government could even offer bureaucratic boilerplate. DEA Director Leonhart denied it was DEA. (FBI Director Comey scratched his face and averted his eyes.) Senator Mikulski pressed Director Leonhart for DEA-specific activity vis-a-vis her constituents in Baltimore. Director Leonhart:
"Maryland is the perfect example when we're talking about what it's going take for our country to actually stem the flow of the rising heroin problem "
Since offering that "perfect example" March 12, 2015, Baltimore Police killed repeat opioid offender, Freddie Gray, April 2015. Death in the Western District Baltimore imitated The Wire. CNN eulogized Gray as "the son of illiterate heroin addict". Baltimore closed 2015 with record-breaking per capita murder (344) an an abysmal ~30% clearance rate.  None of those patterns can be new to Leonhart. Before joining DEA in 1980, Leonhart began her law enforcement career with Baltimore PD patrolling the Northwest District. Leonhart was born in Fargo, North Dakota and educated in Minnesota.

Hypothetically, Leonhart's "contradictory" administration of drugs and drug violence isn't limited to Mexican drug cartels and influences domestic (eg Baltimore) violence also. Unable to confirm for Senator Mikulski who at DoJ was tasked with medical community outreach, Leonhart isolated Mexico as the upstream source of Baltimore, Maryland's heroin problem. That straw man begins approximately minute 43 in CSPAN coverage.



Leonhart resigned as head of DEA April 2015. Obama appointed her to full time head in 2010 after serving the previous three years as acting administrator, as the nominee of President Bush.  The most significant opposition that she faced as a nominee came from Wisconsin Senator Herb Kohl.
Sen. Herb Kohl, of Wisconsin, said Wednesday that he plans to put a hold on the nomination of Michelle Leonhart to head the DEA “until we have made more progress towards our goal of ensuring that nursing home residents get timely access to the prescription drug care they need.”
At the March 2015 Appropriations session, two Republican senators Boozman (Arkansas) and Lankford (Oklahoma) raised RACI questions about organizational "layout" given the confluence of drugs and violence: "dealing with gangs and dealing with drugs, there's obviously a tremendous amount of overlap". Langford asked about this directly at approximately minute 49 of CSPAN coverage. Leonhart isolated:
  1. Violence is assigned to ATF and FBI
  2. DEA's focus to Mexican drug organizations acting as drug wholesalers to "gangs" 
Taken together, that's the sum of Leonhart's evidence for role clarity within federal law enforcement. Watching her testimony, I can't tell whether she herself is actually persuaded by that evidence. Or whether she's aware that she re-stated the problem.

John Boozman (Arkansas) also raised the confluence of drugs and violence - citing the questions from Senators Mikulski and Lankford. Senator Boozman asked ATF Director Jones about the Violence Reduction Network (VRN) for Little Rock and West Memphis. ATF Director Jones: "old becomes new". Senator Boozman flipped to HIDTA, asking Leonhart about the role and responsibility of this inter-agency, state, local organizational construct. As Leonhart began her response (1hr 7min mark of CSPAN coverage), she defers citing HIDTA as part of the ONDCP charter. Senator Mikulski interrupted:
Mikulski: Tell Senator Boozman what those [HIDTA] initials stand for...we get lost in initials that you know everyday...they sound like cans of alphabet soup to us 
Boozman: You're exactly right. 
Mikulski: Or Scrabble games.
Notably absent from this session of the Appropriations Scrabble game: FDA. Also missing: ONDCP. One wonders what exactly they do that isn't evident by their names.


Links for future research and reference:

Right. Confidence. Happy Sunday.









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