Michele Leonhart one step closer to officially heading up the DEA

Mike Riggs Contributor
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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.”

While Sessions and Leonhart agreed on the precedent failures of drug legalization policies in places such as Alaska, drug policy analysts do not.

“None of the nightmare scenarios touted by preenactment decriminalization opponents — from rampant increases in drug usage among the young to the transformation of Lisbon into a haven for ‘drug tourists’ — has occurred,” read a 2009 white paper that the Cato Institute released eight years after Portugal decriminalized illegal drugs.

“Although postdecriminalization usage rates have remained roughly the same or even decreased slightly when compared with other EU states, drug-related pathologies — such as sexually transmitted diseases and deaths due to drug usage — have decreased dramatically,” the study found. “Drug policy experts attribute those positive trends to the enhanced ability of the Portuguese government to offer treatment programs to its citizens — enhancements made possible, for numerous reasons, by decriminalization.”

Cato and legalization advocates also argued in the lead-up to a vote on Prop 19 that legalizing, regulating, and taxing marijuana would make a small dent in California’s massive deficit, and perhaps more importantly, drastically reduce law enforcement spending on marijuana enforcement.

“What worries me is that we have seen–after years of stabilization of drug use–a spike,” Leonhart said. “I believe that spike is directly related to all the conversation we are now hearing about the legalization of drugs.”

Sessions, a former U.S. Attorney, praised the “grassroots” anti-drug policies developed under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. “Drug use did go down,” Sessions said. “In 1980, half the high school seniors admitted to using an illegal drug. The numbers went well below 25 a decade later.” Sessions also said that he “hope[s] this administration will send a very clear message on this,” and echoed Leonhart’s argument that legalization efforts — which Sessions called ”being all nice” — were not a valid response to Mexico’s cartel violence.

“The best way we can help the Mexican leadership…is to demolish the gangs in our country who are selling drugs, collecting the money, and taking it back to fund these entities of power and strength,” Sessions said. “Have you given any thought to focusing on the Mexican drug cartels that are the primary distribution network for cocaine in America?”

Leonhart nodded. “A lot of the focus for DEA these days is on Mexico. And now that we have these courageous Mexican partners with President [Felipe] Calderon at the head, we have had great successes in Mexico at breaking the power and impunity of these cartels. But we can do more, and if confirmed, we will continue our partnership and expand, because we are sharing so much more intelligence [with Mexico] and with state and local law enforcement.”