Those fighting for drug policy reform are urging the Senate Judiciary Committee to oppose President Barack Obama’s nominee for DEA administrator during her confirmation hearings on Wednesday.
Michelle Leonhart has been the interim administrator of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) for three years and has attracted criticism from pro-marijuana groups and liberal organizations.
Leonhart was nominated to be the deputy administrator by then President George W. Bush in 2003 and confirmed by the Senate in 2004. She automatically became the interim administrator of the DEA after the former administrator, Karen P. Tandy, resigned in November of 2007.
After the resignation of Tandy, Bush nominated Leonhart to be the next administrator, but the Senate Judiciary Committee did not hold any hearings on the nomination and, after the adjournment of the 110th Congress in January of 2009, the nomination was returned to Obama.
On February 2nd, 2010, Obama officially nominated Leonhart.
The Drug Policy Alliance, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, Marijuana Policy Project, National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), and Students for Sensible Drug Policy oppose the nomination of Leonhart.
These groups claim Leonhart “has not demonstrated that she is capable of leading the agency in a thoughtful manner at a time when  states have enacted medical marijuana laws and science is increasingly confirming the therapeutic benefits of the substance.”
Under Leonhart’s administration, the DEA has raided a number of legal medical marijuana growers and dispensaries. In one case, the DEA raided the very first person to register for a medical marijuana cultivation permit, a sixty-nine year old woman from Mendocino County in California, even though her personal marijuana garden had been inspected and approved by the local sheriff.
“It is now 14 years since California voters recognized the medical value of marijuana by amending state law; fifteen other states and the District of Columbia have since acted likewise,” Paul Armentano, the Deputy Director of NORML, writes at The Hill. “Yet under Ms. Leonhart’s leadership the DEA has failed to take a single step toward revising its practices in accordance with these changes to state law and administrative policy.”
Attorney General Eric Holder said in 2008 that the Obama administration would end the Bush administration’s policy of raiding medical marijuana dispensaries and restrict itself to only raiding drug traffickers who “use medical marijuana laws as a shield.”
In addition, Deputy Attorney General David Ogden told federal agents in a 2009 memo to not target people in “clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.”
“During Ms. Leonhart’s confirmation hearing, I hope senators ask how she plans to engage with local authorities in the growing number of states where medical marijuana is legal,” adds Steve Fox, director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project. “In order to comply with the Justice Department’s directive, the DEA needs to adopt a policy whereby agents consult with local law enforcement to determine whether someone is in compliance with local laws – before they raid and seize private property.”
As the Senate Judiciary Committee is set to hold confirmation hearings for Leonhart, marijuana advocacy groups are urging the DEA to act on an eight-year-old petition to reschedule marijuana in the United States.
The marijuana rescheduling petition, which was filed by the Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis in 2002, seeks to remove marijuana from the category of a schedule I substance. According to the federal Controlled Substance Act, schedule I is reserved for addictive drugs with no accepted medical use. It is also the most restrictive schedule.
The rescheduling of marijuana is supported by the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, and the American Public Health Association.
“It’s time to end the delay,” says Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis spokesman Jon Gettman. “The government has had eight years to consider this petition, during which the evidence for marijuana’s medical efficacy has only grown.”
Leonhart has had the rescheduling petition on her desk since she became interim administrator, but has so far failed to respond.
“Ms. Leonhart’s actions and ambitions are incompatible with state law, public opinion, and with the policies of this administration,” Armentano says. “At a minimum, Senators should ask Ms. Leonhart specific questions regarding her past record and her intentions moving forward.”