Obama’s pick to head DEA needs to answer some tough questions

As Interim DEA director, Ms. Leonhart has overseen dozens of federal raids on medical marijuana providers, producers, and laboratory facilities that engage in the testing of cannabis potency and quality. These actions took place in states that have enacted laws allowing for the production and distribution of marijuana for medical purposes, and they 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.”


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. 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.

Furthermore, Ms. Leonhart has actively blocked scientific research that seeks to better identify and quantify marijuana’s medicinal properties and efficacy. These actions contradict this administration's pledge to let science rather than ideology guide public policy. 

In particular, Ms. Leonhart has neglected to reply to an eight-year-old petition that calls 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. This single act has prohibited any privately funded medical marijuana research from taking place in the United States.

Finally, Ms. Leonhart has exhibited questionable judgment when speaking to 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.

“Our view is that the violence we have been seeing is a signpost of the success our very courageous Mexican counterparts are having,” Leonhart said. The cartels are acting out like caged animals, because they are caged animals.” This view is out of step with the reality and the gravity of the growing problem on our southern border.

In short, Ms. Leonhart’s actions and ambitions are incompatible with state law, public opinion, and with the policies of this administration. At a minimum, Senators should ask Ms. Leonhart specific questions regarding her past record and her intentions moving forward. These questions ought to include:

* What are your plans for bridging the growing divide between state and federal law concerning the use of marijuana for medical purposes?

* How has the DEA changed its policies and practices to ensure compliance with the 2009 Department of Justice memo calling on federal law enforcement to no longer target individuals who are in compliance with the medical marijuana laws of their states?

* When will the DEA respond to a 2002 petition to hold hearings on the rescheduling of marijuana, as were called for by the American Medical Association?
 
Failure of the Senate to engage in a probing dialogue with Ms. Leonhart regarding these matters will continue to give the appearance that Congress and this administration are willing to place politics above science. This administration has specifically pledged to end this practice. It can begin doing so by demanding careful consideration be given to Michele Leonhart’s nomination.
 
Paul Armentano is the Deputy Director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).