Michele Leonhart one step closer to officially heading up the DEA

Acting director Michele Leonhart is that much closer to officially heading up the Drug Enforcement Agency after successfully navigating a hearing with the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.

If confirmed to the position she’s already held for three years, Leonhart said she would expand the DEA’s anti-cartel operations in Mexico and continue to enforce federal drug laws in states where medical marijuana is legal. Under light pressure from committee Democrats, Leonhart also restated her promise to reform prescription drug laws that have made it nearly impossible for nursing homes to administer pain medications to their residents.

Democratic Senator Herb Kohl of Wisconsin calmly lit into Leonhart, an alumna of the Bush administration, for regulations adopted during her tenure that prohibit nursing home employees from dispensing prescription pain medication to chronic pain sufferers in their care.

Due to a change in policy under Leonhart, said Kohl, “nursing homes [are] unable to administer pain medication to residents in a timely manner. The time that it takes for a nursing home to comply with the DEA’s new enforcement policy can be an eternity to an elderly patient who is in agonizing pain.”

According to Kohl, a deputy administer of the DEA told him during an October 2009 hearing that the DEA “would act quickly to solve this problem.” Kohl then met with Leonhart in early May of 2010 to discuss the regulations.

“You told me you also would address the problem swiftly,” Kohl said to Leonhart during the hearing. “In August, I requested joint comments from DEA and DHHS on draft legislation that I prepared and submitted to you to facilitate more timely access to pain medication for ailing nursing home residents. I received no response.”

“It appears the DEA is putting paperwork before pain relief,” Kohl added.

The regulations in question prohibit nursing home nurses from administering pain medications to their residents, even those with a doctor’s prescriptions. Leonhart, who has been acting director of the DEA since 2007, said that her agency is slowly working towards a solution. “We don’t take lightly our responsibility to not only prevent aversion and do our regulatory business, but we’re very concerned about those patients in need. That’s why in the interim, while we’re finding long-term solutions, we’ve come up with a few short-term solutions and policy statements. We need to do more.”

Kohl responded rather curtly to Leonhart’s explanation: “I would like to see much more progress made on this issue before you are confirmed,” he said. Kohl’s statement was the first sign that Senate Democrats may not rubber-stamp President Obama’s nominee.

Perhaps due to the failure of Prop 19 in California (and despite the passage of medical marijuana in Arizona), Kohl, along with Democratic Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Al Franken of Minnesota, made no mention of medical marijuana. Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, however, made it his prime focus.

“I’m a big fan of the DEA,” said Sessions, before asking Leonhart point blank if she would fight medical marijuana legalization.

“I have seen what marijuana use has done to young people, I have seen the abuse, I have seen what it’s done to families. It’s bad,” Leonhart said. “If confirmed as administrator, we would continue to enforce the federal drug laws.”

“These legalization efforts sound good to people,” Sessions quipped. “They say, ‘We could just end the problem of drugs if we could just make it legal.’ But any country that’s tried that, Alaska and other places have tried it, have failed. It does not work,” Sessions said.

“We need people who are willing to say that. Are you willing to say that?” Sessions asked Leonhart.

“Yes, I’ve said that, senator. You’re absolutely correct [about] the social costs from drug abuse, especially from marijuana,” Leonhart said. “Legalizers say it will help the Mexican cartel situation; it won’t. It will allow states to balance budgets; it won’t. No one is looking [at] the social costs of legalizing drugs.”