Two of the former Drug Enforcement Agency officials who came out this week urging the federal government to nullify new state pot laws in Washington and Colorado are facing criticism for simultaneously running a company that may profit from keeping marijuana illegal.
Robert L. DuPont, who was White House drug czar under Presidents Nixon and Ford, and Peter Bensinger, who was administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration in the 1970s, today run Bensinger, DuPont & Associates, a company that specializes in workplace drug testing, among other employee programs. Both men signed an open (along with eight other former DEA officials) addressed to Senate Judiciary Committee members this week criticizing the Obama administration for failing to quickly address the new states laws legalizing pot, which are inconsistent with federal law.
But a number of supporters of marijuana legalization are upset over what they consider are conflicts of interest for the former drug czars who helped pen the letter.
Paul Armentano, deputy director of the pro-marijuana nonprofit NORML, points to DuPont and Bensigner's work in drug testing as problematic.
"These individuals still have financial and professional interests in ancillary businesses and endeavors that benefit from keeping marijuana illegal," he says. "So there's a lot of bluster to imply the sky is falling, while to the rest of the public this is no big deal." Armentano cites a number of recent public opinion studies on pot, including a 2011 study from Gallup that found at least half of America today supports legalizing marijuana.
Howard Wooldridge, a lobbyist for the pro-marijuana legalization group Citizens Opposing Prohibition, says he doesn't have a problem with former DEA officials making money by using their expertise. "They understood during their time at the agency that this was going to be a long-running policy, and they realized the financial possibilities and they acted on them." But Wooldridge says he was disturbed by the letter this week because it "promotes the policies that line their pocketbook."
In their letter, the former DEA officials called marijuana "a dangerous and addictive drug" that "significantly impacts" a number of aspects of society—including employee productivity.
Both DuPont and Bensigner tell Whispers the law, and not their company's work, was the motivation for the letter. Bensigner maintains that only 15 percent of their business is drug-related, while DuPont notes that the company consults on how to set up workplace drug testing but does not actually conduct the tests.
According to its Web site, Bensinger, DuPont & Associates provides "full-service" drug testing for employers, which includes everything from developing company policy to selecting a laboratory to training supervisors.
"In a sense that's true," DuPont says of whether the company benefits from keeping marijuana illegal. But he argues the company could also benefit from marijuana legalization, "because the problems it would create for employees would be greater."
Even if the two men don't financially profit from keeping marijuana illegal, Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, says they benefit in other ways.
"They realize they are going to suffer the fate of the people who ran the bureau of prohibition [of alcohol] in the '20s and '30s, and that must be a little demoralizing," he says. "So they are justifying their legacy and their life's work."
DuPont, who also works as a psychiatrist for people with drug dependencies, says the "only legacy I'm interested in defending is how to limit the damage done by the modern drug epidemic."