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The Forgotten Ban: Obama sticks with DEA nominee Michele Leonhart despite criticism of raids

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Mike Riggs
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      Mike Riggs

      Mike Riggs is a staff writer at The Daily Caller. He has written and reported for Reason magazine and reason.com, GQ, the Awl, Decibel, Culture 11, the Philadelphia Bulletin, and the Washington City Paper, where he served as an arts and entertainment editor.

For a while, it looked like progressives and small government types might never stop warring over the passage of the Democrats’ health care bill earlier this year. But it seems a few members of each team — FireDogLake, the 10th Amendment Center, and a slew of marijuana activists – have finally found common cause in calling for President Obama to rescind the nomination of Michele Leonhart to head the Drug Enforcement Agency.

In a letter released late last month, the groups accused Leonhart, a deputy administrator appointed by President George W. Bush and the acting administrator since the resignation of Karen P. Tandy in 2007, of ignoring a Justice Department directive not to “waste resources” by raiding dispensaries and growers operating legally in states that allow the sale of medical marijuana.

But according to a senior White House official, not even the combined grassroot powers of FireDogLake’s Jane Hamsher, a leading voice in the progressive community and a supporter of the single-payer health care plan abandoned by congressional Democrats earlier this year, and the 10th Amendment Center, which has provided guidelines to states that wish to repeal Obamacare, can derail Leonhart’s nomination.

Obama is confident that Leonhart is the right choice, the White House staffer said, and that as of Friday the president wasn’t considering anyone else for the position. In other words, the response from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to a chorus of concerns boils down to: Leonhart or bust.

In response to this message, critics have pointed out that Obama is shifting his stance on marijuana policy.

“It’s unfortunate — and outright baffling — that the Obama administration would choose someone for this post whose resume is so strongly at odds with the ‘new direction’ this administration had promised for drug policy in general and medical marijuana in particular,” the Marijuana Policy Project’s Mike Meno told The Daily Caller. “During the election campaign, and again through the Department of Justice memo in October, President Obama vowed to stop the outrageous Bush-era practice of raiding and prosecuting medical marijuana patients and providers who operate under state law. If change is what they seek, why would the administration nominate a Bush holdover under whom the DEA continues to raid the private property of citizens obeying state law? It makes no sense.”

MPP and other marijuana activists have pointed to a series of raids the DEA conducted in California as recently as last month as evidence that Leonhart is continuing the Bush-era strategy of cracking down on medical marijuana dispensaries and growers, even if they are operating legally under California law. They say this conflicts directly with statements Obama made on the campaign trail, such as this one from April 2008:

“When it comes to medical marijuana, I have a practical view more than anything. My attitude is that if it’s an issue of doctors prescribing medical marijuana as a treatment for glaucoma or a cancer treatment, there really is no difference between that and a doctor prescribing morphine, or anything else.”

But the White House and the Justice Department both told TheDC that Holder’s memo does not give dispensaries carte blanche to grow or sell marijuana, and that recent raids don’t conflict with what Obama expressed while campaigning.

“I wouldn’t say the memo ‘discourages’ certain raids,” a DOJ offical told TheDC. Rather, “it talks about prioritizing resources most efficiently.” And both the White House and the DOJ argued that the gist of the Holder memo was that the DEA would “not focus its limited resources on individual patients with cancer or other serious diseases.”

Critics see the distinction between cancer patients who take medical marijuana and the people who sell them medical marijuana as hair-splitting.

“Attorney General Eric Holder was crystal clear last year when he directed officials within his department not to waste federal resources interfering with state medical marijuana laws,” wrote FireDogLake’s Jane Hamsher in the open letter distributed by the Marijuana Policy Project. “Yet throughout the tenure of President Obama’s administration, the DEA’s raids have continued in a manner wholly inconsistent with the spirit of that directive. What part of ‘not a priority’ does Michele Leonhart not understand?”

Even the Tea Party-friendly 10th Amendment Center is willing to share the peace pipe with Hamsher and the FireDogLake community if it means stopping Leonhart’s confirmation. “We absolutely can come together on this issue,” said the center’s Michael Boldin, while adding that “Leonhart’s nomination should be moot,” because “constitutionally, her whole position should be abolished.”

What the alliance needs but likely won’t receive is political support from Congress. Not even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi–who has voiced her support for medical marijuana but not Proposition 19, the referendum item that would legalize cannabis sales in California–has offered a symbolic objection to Leonhart’s nomination, which the Senate Judiciary Committee could take up later this year.

Not that it would do any good.

Ultimately, says syndicated columnist Jacob Sullum, “it was Obama who picked her instead of someone with different priorities, and he and his attorney general are letting her continue to violate his campaign pledge.”