Drug Law

Senate Confirms Michelle Leonhart as DEA Chief

| by NORML

By Paul Armentano

The U.S. Senate has confirmed Michelle Leonhart by unanimous consent to head the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Miss Leonhart had served as interim director of the agency since November 2007. President Barack Obama had nominated Leonhart in February to serves as the agency’s director.

Numerous drug policy reform organizations, including NORML, had opposed Leonhart’s confirmation – arguing that her actions as interim DEA administrator were contrary to the Obama administration’s pledge to allow science, rather than rhetoric and ideology, guide public policy.

For example, Ms. Leonhart oversaw dozens of federal raids on medical marijuana providers and producers. These actions took place in states that have enacted laws allowing for the use and distribution of marijuana for medical purposes, and are inconsistent with an October 19, 2009 Department of Justice memo recommending federal officials no longer “focus … resources … on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.”

Miss Leonhart also blocked scientific research that sought to better identify and quantify marijuana’s medicinal properties and efficacy. In particular, Ms. Leonhart neglected to reply to an eight-year-old petition calling for administrative hearings regarding the rescheduling marijuana for medical use. Such hearings were called for in 2009 by the American Medical Association, which resolved “that marijuana’s status as a federal Schedule I controlled substance be reviewed with the goal of facilitating the conduct of clinical research and development of cannabinoid-based medicines.” Moreover, in January 2009, Ms. Leonhart refused to issue a license to the University of Massachusetts for the purpose of cultivating marijuana for FDA-approved research, despite a DEA administrative law judge’s ruling that it would be “in the public interest” to grant this request.

Finally, Ms. Leonhart has exhibited questionable judgment when speaking about the subject of escalating drug war violence in Mexico. In 2009, she described this border violence — which is responsible for over 31,000 deaths since December 2006 — as a sign of the “success” of her agency’s anti-drug strategies.

Commenting on Ms. Leonhart’s confirmation, NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano said, “Ms. Leonhart’s actions and ambitions are incompatible with state law, public opinion, and with the policies of this administration. It is unlikely that we will see any serious change in direction of the DEA under Ms. Leonhart’s leadership.”

In December, Wisconsin Democrat Herb Kohl had placed a hold on Ms. Leonhart’s nomination. Senator Kohl dropped his hold on December 22, and the Senate unanimously confirmed Leonhart’s nomination the following day.