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Senate Holds Hearings on Controversial DEA Nominee [FEATURE]

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #659)
Politics & Advocacy

Michele Leonhart's nomination to be Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) administrator appeared to be on track for an easy confirmation after a Wednesday hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The nomination is opposed by the drug reform, medical marijuana, and hemp movements, but insiders say it is all but a done deal.

meet the new boss, same as the old boss
While reformers had hoped one or more senators would ask Leonhart "tough questions" about her tenure as acting DEA administrator, that didn't happen. Sens. Herb Kohl (D-WI) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) pressed Leonhart about easing access to pain medications for senior citizens in nursing homes, but that was about the extent of the prodding.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), expressing concern about all that legalization talk in the air, gave Leonhart the opportunity to assure him that she and the DEA stood steadfast. She obliged him.

"I have seen what marijuana use has done to young people," Leonhart said. "I've seen the addiction, the family breakup. I've seen the bad. I'm extremely concerned about the legalization of any drugs," she avowed. "We already have problems with prescription drugs, which are legal, so it's of concern."

Legalizers are singing a seductive siren song, Leonhart warned. "The danger of these legalization efforts, they say we could just end the problem of drugs if we just make it legal," she explained. "But any country that has tried that -- the Netherlands, Alaska -- it has not worked, it is failed public policy."

Leonhart was nominated by President Bush to be administrator at DEA after replacing Karen Tandy in 2007 and has been acting administrator ever since. The Obama administration renominated her as administrator in February, but the nomination languished as the committee dealt with other business, most notably addressing  a backlog of judicial nominations and preparing for confirmation hearings for the nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court.

Medical marijuana and drug reform advocacy groups have opposed Leonhart's nomination on a variety of grounds. As Special Agent in Charge of the DEA's Los Angeles office from 1998 to 2004 and DEA deputy administrator from 2003 to 2007, she presided over hundreds of raids on medical marijuana patients and providers. As acting administrator, she ran DEA while California medical marijuana raids continued unabated until the October 2009 Justice Department memorandum  to quit persecuting patients and providers "whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws."

Even since then, while DEA medical marijuana raids have diminished, they have not stopped. According to the medical marijuana support group Americans for Safe Access (ASA), since the memo went out, the DEA under Leonhart has engaged in more than 30 raids of medical marijuana providers in states where it is legal.

"As the deputy director, Ms. Leonhart supervised an unprecedented level of paramilitary-style enforcement raids designed to undermine safe access and the implementation of state medical marijuana programs," ASA said in an alert to its members.

Leonhart is also drawing fire from advocates for overturning a DEA administrative law judge's decision to issue a license to UMass-Amherst Professor Lyle Craker to grow marijuana for FDA-approved research. That decision left intact the federal government's monopoly on the cultivation of marijuana for research purposes. It is grown only at the University of Mississippi.

And she is being opposed as well for her DEA's recalcitrance when it comes to industrial hemp. In a July letter to the committee, the industry group Vote Hemp said it opposed Leonhart's nomination because under her tenure DEA continues to block hemp production in the US, has failed for more than three years to respond to several applications from North Dakota-licensed farmers to grow hemp, and continues to maintain the fiction that hemp is marijuana.

"Michele Leonhart, the nominee for administrator and a lifetime DEA bureaucrat, severely lacks the vision to change policy on hemp farming for the better," the group said.  "Vote Hemp strongly opposes the nomination of Michele Leonhart to be Administrator of the DEA."

There is another reason to question her suitability to run DEA -- her dealings with and defense of one-time DEA "supersnitch" Andrew Chambers. Chambers earned an astounding $2.2 million for his work as a DEA informant between 1984 and 2000. The problem was that he was caught perjuring himself repeatedly. The US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals called him a liar in 1993, and the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals echoed that verdict two years later.

But instead of terminating its relationship with Chambers, the DEA protected him, failing to notify prosecutors and defense attorneys about his record. At one point, DEA and the Justice Department for 17 months stalled a public defender seeking to examine the results of DEA's background check on Chambers. Even after the agency knew its snitch was rotten, it refused to stop using Chambers, and it took the intervention of then Attorney General Janet Reno to force the agency to quit using him.

Michele Leonhart defended Chambers. When asked if, given his credibility problems, the agency should quit using him, she said, "That would be a sad day for DEA, and a sad day for anybody in the law enforcement world... He's one in a million. In my career, I'll probably never come across another Andrew."

Another Leonhart statement on Chambers is even more shocking, as much for what it says about Leonhart as for what Leonhart says about Chambers. "The only criticism (of Chambers) I've ever heard is what defense attorneys will characterize as perjury or a lie on the stand," she said, adding that once prosecutors check him out, they will agree with his DEA admirers that he is "an outstanding testifier."

And then there's her connection to the "House of Death" scandal. The "House of Death" in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, was a house used by the Juárez drug cartel to murder people. Dozens of bodies were eventually recovered when the police raided it. The case revolves around a US Immigration and Customs (ICE) and DEA informant in Mexico, code-named "Lalo," who witnessed (and perhaps took part in) a murder in the House of Death during August 2003. In a lawsuit, whistleblower and former DEA Special Agent Sanalio Gonzalez charges that Leonhart and other officials fired him for speaking out about the murders and then helped cover the scandal up.

A number of reform groups have organized Internet and phone call-in campaigns in a bid to derail the nomination. Students for Sensible Drug Policy, NORML, California NORML, and Firedoglake have all sounded the alarm. So has the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP).

[Editor's Note: The interviews below were conducted before Wednesday's hearing.]

"We are asking our supporters and followers to contact their representatives if they are serving on the committee and tell them to ask her some tough questions about her previous actions," said MPP communications director Mike Meno. "She presided over hundreds of DEA raids on legal medical marijuana providers during Bush admin, and played a crucial role in rejecting applications to do FDA-level research on marijuana."

ASA provided a list of questions for the committee to ask Leonhart, including how raiding medical marijuana providers was an efficient use of DEA resources, how the DEA might work with medical marijuana states, why the DEA didn't just hand over cases of "clear and unambiguous" violations of state medical marijuana laws to state authorities, and when the DEA might get around to deciding the status of a 2002 petition to reschedule marijuana.

"I was hoping that this nomination was going to die a slow death but it appears as if they are going forward with it," said Tom Murphy, outreach coordinator for Vote Hemp. "We sent a letter in opposition, as I know a number of other organizations have. We've also got a pair of action alerts up on our web site. We've been working it against this since June, and we have a long list of reasons to oppose her nomination."

But it doesn’t appear that the senators on the Judiciary Committee are paying much heed to the stop Leonhart campaign. Despite the protests, her nomination is likely to sale through the committee tomorrow and be quickly approved by the Senate.

"Unfortunately, I don't think there's any chance of stopping her nomination," said Murphy. "She was nominated by Bush, and the committee sat on it, and renominated by Obama and they sat it on. Now we're a lame duck session, and they’re moving it. That tells me they have the votes to get it through and it's a done deal."

"The prospects aren't good. Every office we've talked to has said they weren't going to go against an Obama nominee," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance, which also opposed the nomination. "But if we can get some senators to put pressure on her publicly or privately, maybe she will quit being such as obstacle when it comes to things like Amherst and the raids. We're taking sort of a harm reduction approach, like when Asa Hutchinson was grilled during his hearing and came out in support of reducing the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity."

Getting Michele Leonhart to back off a little on the medical marijuana raids would be a welcome consolation, but don't hold your breath. Progressive drug policy stances are not the traditional province of the DEA, and it looks like nothing is going to change there for the foreseeable future.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Lisa Gabay (not verified)

I am tired of not being legally able to use a perfectly natural plant to help my pain and being forced to use man-made medication that does damage to my internal organs instead. When are we going to stop this ridiculous waste of time and money going after marijuana instead of going after crystal meth which is the worst drug of all.

Tue, 11/16/2010 - 1:37pm Permalink
Anon9 (not verified)

In reply to by Lisa Gabay (not verified)

These hypocritical "drink liberally" conservatives are the elected representatives of the alcohol industry and will do just about anything to distract the public's attention from the mountain of destruction caused by alcohol and the hush money they receive from these drug dealers.  They don't have the guts to go against the alcohol industry and address rampant binge drinking, so they focus on the "horrors" of marijuana.  One more reason why we need to work like crazy at the state-level with the ballot initiatives.

Thu, 11/18/2010 - 8:10pm Permalink
Giordano (not verified)

Michele Leonhart’s ignorant and malicious antagonism toward medical cannabis delayed critical research and development of medical treatments for breast cancer that otherwise would be available to women suffering today from advanced stages of the disease.

In the eyes of the medical community and women throughout the world, Michele Leonhart is a murderer.


Tue, 11/16/2010 - 5:12pm Permalink
maxwood (not verified)

Best of luck to Lisa, but I disagree with you on one point-- not crystal meth but the hot-burning overdose $igarette-- the format, not just the tobacco-- is the most destructive drug of all.

Now what is the true meaning-- or agenda-- of a department named Drug Enforcement Administration?  What Drug are they trying to Enforce?  My impression is it is $igarette Tobacco-- in exchange for the $igarette "tax" bribe, the campaign contributions (2/3 to Republicans) and the "friendliness" of that prodigious army of well-dressed, well-groomed, well-spoken "tobacco" (i.e. $igarette) lawbuyists.

One third rail the Committee members should offer Ms. Leonhart is: "What do you think of the possibility that some teenagers are successfully using cannabis to escape being recruited into lifelong (and 40% lifeshortening) nicotine slavery, and would you agree with Mrs. Stowe that there is a moral duty to help human beings, old and young, escape from slavery?

Tue, 11/16/2010 - 8:55pm Permalink
newageblues (not verified)

No she's not! She's as comfy as can be with the legalization of alcohol, which easily kills more people in a day than cannabis does in a year! Damn these lying hypocrites who rule us, and damn the politicians and scientists and public health officials who know better but don't have the guts to stand up to it. Drug warriors baldly claim something is only a drug if they say it is. The Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland would be proud of them.

Thu, 11/18/2010 - 10:01am Permalink
Doug Johnson (not verified)

"I have seen what marijuana use has done to young people," Leonhart said.

Yes, because they use marijuana, our government has turned them into criminals with an increased probability that they will be shot and/or imprisoned by jack-booted DEA agents under the control of our elected officials.

"...and the government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth."  Abraham Lincoln  (and our government will do anything to achieve the later part, even sacrificing the first part)

O say does that star spangled banner yet wave, o'er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.  Francis Scott Key (Are we really the land of the free, or do we live in an oppressive and discriminatory society?  Is freedom really that important to us anymore?  Perhaps "land of the blind", "land of the oppressed and loving it", or similar, would be more suitable to our present circumstance.)

The State of Iowa Motto:  "Our liberties we prize, our rights we will maintain".  What does this mean?  Does it mean anything anymore?  It sounds good, but I don't think Iowans believe in it.

Thu, 11/18/2010 - 1:26pm Permalink
Wilma Ralls (not verified)

Michele Leonhart is the most awful choice anyone could make for a position like this. This is more BUSH on STEROIDS ... putting people in charge of an agency when you know the person is going to HARM THE AMERICAN PEOPLE by their actions and in-actions! This is worst than the last person we had in this job. I want someone in this position who actually has a desire to HELP the American people, not be against them. I consider America's drug policy ANTI-HUMANITY!! AND A CONTINUATION OF PUSHING THE WORST CHOICES FOR RECREATION AND RELAXATION ON THE AMERICAN PEOPLE.

I am also very angry that Proposition 19 did not pass in California because President Obama told Californians two weeks before the elections that HE WOULD ENFORCE FEDERAL LAWS AGAINST MARIJUANA, ESPECIALLY HERE IF CALIFORNIA PASSED THIS PROPOSITION. This not only caused people who were going to vote for the proposition to change their vote to NO. It also resulted in disgusting so many people in my community that they just did not vote at all. The result in my town was we lost wonderful progressive, giving people in strategic position in this county because so many liberals and democrats were too disgusted to vote! I happen to know this happened for a fact!!! Thanks Obama, AGAIN!

Alcoholic beverages and cigarettes kill and they kill viciously! I have seen with my own eyes two deaths from alcohol abuse and one from cigarette abuse and it is an ugly sight. Marijuana has never killed ANYBODY! It has never even made anyone SICK! When I am relaxing in my home with friends and family, why in the world would I want my loved ones to reach for a cigarette or an alcoholic drink for relaxation when a few hits of marijuana can do wonders for fatigue, anxiety, headaches and other pains and it makes you MORE sociable, not less. It induces feelings of love and comraderie, not the frenetic, artificial, hyped-up, lecherous behavior people exhibit while under the influence of alcohol and tobacco.

The anxiety, stress, and frustration millions of Americans are facing right now is unprecedented, at least in my life time! And, this time we have a media that throws in every one's face every hour of every day a lifestyle that MOST AMERICANS CAN NO LONGER AFFORD. Alcoholism and tobacco abuse are on the rise and it makes me literally sick to think of people reaching for these things to deal with their stress when they could be using something that would actually DO SOMETHING POSITIVE FOR THAT STRESS, instead of creating more problems for themselves and their families. It really breaks my heart that my own government is pushing the worst possible alternative on it's own people in these incredibly stressful times.

This woman has no business serving in a position like this. I don't care if it is another woman in government, which I like to see, but not this way and not this person!!!

Thu, 11/18/2010 - 2:46pm Permalink
Chet Biggerstaff (not verified)

In reply to by Wilma Ralls (not verified)

it can make you sick if you take to much. BUT it will not kill you and if you take a nap you'll be fine when you get up. It can cause the worst case of bed spins you'll ever get along with projectile vomiting and anxiety. These are VERY temporary side effects of using to much and there is no lasting effect. So the moral of the story? Don't take to much and you'll be fine....and if you do take to much you'll be fine in about 4 hours ;)

Sat, 11/20/2010 - 1:13pm Permalink

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