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Michele Leonhart

  • by Paul Armentano, NORML Deputy Director March 2, 2012

    A federal judge in Sacramento this week dismissed a federal lawsuit filed in November by members of the NORML Legal Committee against the US Department of Justice, US Attorney General Eric Holder, and DEA Director Michele Leonhart. The lawsuit (read it here), one of four filed simultaneously in the state’s four federal districts, argues that the Justice Department’s ongoing crackdown against medical marijuana providers and distributors in California is in violation of the Ninth, Tenth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution because the use of cannabis therapeutically is a fundamental right. Petitioners also argue, using the theory of judicial estoppel, that the Justice Department had previously affirmed in public memos and in statements made in federal court that it would no longer use federal resources to prosecute cannabis patients or providers who are compliant with state law.

    On Wednesday, US District Judge Garland Burrell, Jr., rejected those arguments and and granted the respondent’s dismissal motion. He denied petitioners request for public hearings prior to making his ruling.

    Judge Burrell rejected plaintiffs’ Ninth and Tenth Amendment challenges, finding: “Since the Supreme Court has held the that CSA’s (federal Controlled Substances Act) categorical prohibition of the possession, manufacturing, and distribution of marijuana does not exceed Congress’ authority under the Commerce Clause (Article I Section 8, Clause 3 of the US Constitution), plaintiffs do not have a viable …. claim.”

    He also rejected plaintiffs’ equal protection arguments, finding that the Justice Department’s actions in California mimic efforts the federal government has taken against “similarly situated individuals” elsewhere. Judge Burrell also cited court rulings finding that defendants in previous challenges have failed to meet the “heavy burden of proving the irrationality of the schedule I classification of marijuana.”

    Finally, Judge Burrell dismissed plaintiff’s judicial estoppel clam, which argues that defendants’ “recent crackdown … against medical cannabis patients flouts the representations made on the record by the Department of Justice” in public memos and statements in court. Responding to this challenge, Judge Burrell determined, “Since judicial estoppel does not apply unless ‘a party’s later position [is] ‘clearly inconsistent with its earlier position,’ and the Ogden memo does not contain a promise not to enforce the CSA, defendants’ enforcement of the CSA is not inconsistent.”

    Commenting on the ruling, Attorney David Michael of San Francisco, who along with Matt Kumin and Alan Silber were the lead attorneys in these four challenges, said “We are disappointed, but not discouraged, that the District Courts have thus far denied us the relief we had sought. They are constrained by existing precedent, and the result was not unexpected. It is the Ninth Circuit where we hope to find a receptive audience, and, with the Lawrence v. Texas decision, we may also have a more receptive audience in the Supreme Court, should the issue go there.”

    Judges for the Ninth Circuit had previously determined in Raich v Gonzalez: “For now, federal law is blind to the wisdom of a future day when the right to use medical marijuana to alleviate excruciating pain may be deemed fundamental. Although that day has not yet dawned, … (it) may be upon us sooner than expected.”

  • by Paul Armentano, NORML Deputy Director December 7, 2010

    Obama administration officials strongly oppose plans by the city of Oakland to license and tax industrial sized medical cannabis producers, according to a just published report on CaliforniaWatch.org, the website of the Center for Investigative Reporting.

    Sources at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the United States attorney’s office in San Francisco said that federal officials would likely pursue criminal or civil litigation against local marijuana growers as well as Oakland city officials if they decide to move forward with plans to license medical cannabis farming. “Oakland would be on the hook for violating state and federal law,” an unnamed administration official told the website.

    Oakland City Attorney John Russo confirmed that DOJ officials are opposed to the city’s licensing plan. “They’ve expressed their concerns that the path Oakland is taking is in violation of the law,” Russo said in a prepared statement.

    Oakland officials are seeking to license up to four industrial-sized medical marijuana grow operations within the city limits. The permits do not set limits regarding the quantity of cannabis that licensed producers may cultivate at each given site. City officials began accepting applications from prospective growers in November.

    According to the California Watch report, federal officials are also planning to initiate a broader crack down on marijuana production and distribution statewide. The story reports that DOJ and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officials met with California’s four U.S. attorneys on November 10 “to develop a plan to deal with some of the loopholes and gray areas in the state’s medical marijuana program.”

    The administration’s threats appear to be in conflict with an October 19, 2009 DOJ memo stating, “As a general matter, pursuit of [federal law enforcement] priorities should not focus federal resources … on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.” Nevertheless, as previously reported by Americans for Safe Access and others, the administration since issuing that memo has engaged in an estimated 30 federal raids of medical marijuana providers, producers, and laboratory facilities that engage in the testing of cannabis potency and quality.

    NORML will have further details on this story in Thursday’s weekly media advisory.

  • by Russ Belville, NORML Outreach Coordinator December 3, 2010

    Acting DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart... you've been Kohl-blocked!

    As NORML has warned, President Obama has nominated Michele Leonhart to head the Drug Enforcement Administration. Leonhart has been serving as Acting DEA Administrator since her appointment by the Bush Administration. Now during confirmation hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Herb Kohl (D-WI) has placed a hold on the nomination.

    The Wall Street Journal reports that Sen. Kohl was upset about DEA restrictions on how nursing homes are allowed to dispense pain medications to elderly patients. New regulations intended to stem the diversion of addictive painkillers to the underground market would require nursing homes to have doctors, not nurses or other staff, to dispense medications like Oxycontin and Vicodin. The economic realities of the nursing home market do not allow these facilities to always have the necessary doctors on staff, leading to long wait times, under-treatment of pain, and suffering for elderly patients in pain.

    Sen. Kohl placed the hold, an privilege of senators that prevents Leonhart’s nomination from proceeding to the full Senate, “until we have made more progress towards our goal of ensuring that nursing home residents get timely access to the prescription drug care they need,” said Kohl. “Every day nursing home patients continue to suffer from agonizing pain and we need an interim solution as soon as possible.”

    NORML applauds any reason to prevent Leonhart from assuming the role of DEA Administrator.  However, we hope Sen. Kohl and the remainder of the Judiciary Committee also consider the nominee’s positions on medical marijuana and the Mexican Drug War as further indications she is unfit for the position.

    If Sen. Kohl is concerned about nursing home patients continuing to suffer in agonizing pain, then Leonhart’s opposition to the fifteen states that provide medical marijuana to elderly patients should also be of concern.  As Acting Administrator, Leonhart has green-lighted at least thirty raids of medical marijuana dispensaries.  These raids run contrary to the directive of her boss, Attorney General Holder, who specified that scarce federal law enforcement resources should not be expended on medical marijuana operations running lawfully under state laws.  The medical marijuana from these dispensaries has been shown to relieve neuropathic pain as well as stave off the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and lessen the effects of arthritis – all beneficial for the elderly nursing home community.

    All members of the committee should be wary of Leonhart’s views of the rapidly destabilizing Mexican state due to the drug war.  Just today the WikiLeaks dump of foreign diplomatic cables reveals a Mexican drug war plan that “lacks a clear strategy” and “suffers from infighting among security agencies” according to the Washington Post.  The leaks have insiders calling the $1.4 billion “Merida Initiative” of aid to Mexico “ill-conceived and doing little so far to fight drug traffickers.”

    Yet Acting Administrator Leonhart, when questioned about the now 31,000 Mexicans now dead in the drug-trafficking wars since 2006, said “Our view is that the violence we have been seeing is a signpost of the success our very courageous Mexican counterparts are having. The cartels are acting out like caged animals, because they are caged animals.”  Where WikiLeaks reveals American and Mexican officials secretly doubting the effectiveness of our $1.4 billion strategy, Leonhart is selling it lock, stock, and barrel to the taxpayers.

    Of further concern in the Leonhart nomination to head the DEA is her opposition to the science on cannabis.  She has refused to act on an eight-year-old petition supported by NORML to reschedule cannabis out of Schedule I where it is deemed to have “no medicinal value”; this is inexcusable stonewalling in the face of fifteen US states that recognize cannabis’ medicinal value, the calls from the American Medical Association for its rescheduling, and the federal government’s own patent on the medicinal properties of cannabinoids.  Leonhart has even refused to heed the declaration of a DEA judge in the petition of Professor Lyle Craker, whom the judge said should be allowed to grow cannabis for scientific research.

    You can still write or call your Senator about Ms. Leonhart’s nomination process – to do so click here and here.  Tell your Senator to support Sen. Kohl’s opposition to Michele Leonhart for DEA Administrator and demand President Obama nominate an administrator who will be open-minded on the science of medical marijuana and willing to reasonably discuss the end of the drug war altogether.

  • by Allen St. Pierre, NORML Executive Director July 21, 2010

    FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – July 21, 2010

    Following Recent Raids, Medical Marijuana Advocacy Groups Call on President Obama to Withdraw Nomination of Michele Leonhart to be DEA Administrator

    Obama’s DEA Head Must Follow Stated Medical Marijuana Policy, End Obstruction of Marijuana Research, and Base Marijuana Rescheduling on Science Rather than Ideology

    CONTACT: Allen St. Pierre, Executive Director, 202-483-5500 or director@norml.org

    WASHINGTON, DC – Today, a coalition of organizations supportive of medical marijuana patients and providers (see list of organizations below) are calling on President Obama to withdraw his nomination of Michele Leonhart to serve as administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Ms. Leonhart, who is currently the DEA’s acting-administrator, has not demonstrated that she is capable of leading the agency in a thoughtful manner at a time when fourteen states have enacted medical marijuana laws and science is increasingly confirming the therapeutic benefits of the substance.

    “It is clearly time for President Obama to insist that his appointees adhere to current Justice Department guidelines regarding state laws regulating the medical use of marijuana, and that marijuana be fairly evaluated by all federal agencies, based on science, not ideology,” said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), the nation’s oldest marijuana legalization lobby. “The Obama administration should be working with us to eliminate criminal penalties for the responsible use of marijuana by adults, regardless of whether it is medical use or otherwise.”

    Under Leonhart’s leadership, the DEA has staged medical marijuana raids in apparent disregard of Attorney General Eric Holder’s directive to respect state medical marijuana laws. Most recently, DEA agents flouted a pioneering Mendocino County (CA) ordinance to regulate medical marijuana cultivation by raiding the very first grower to register with the sheriff. Joy Greenfield, 69, had paid more than $1,000 for a permit to cultivate 99 plants in a collective garden that had been inspected and approved by the local sheriff.

    Informed that Ms. Greenfield had the support of the sheriff, the DEA agent in charge responded by saying, “I don’t care what the sheriff says.” The DEA’s conduct is inconsistent with an October 2009 Department of Justice memo directing officials not to arrest individuals “whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.”

    Ms. Leonhart has also demonstrated that she is unable to be objective in carrying out the duties of the administrator as it relates to medical marijuana research. In January 2009, she refused to issue a license to the University of Massachusetts to cultivate marijuana for FDA-approved research, despite a DEA administrative law judge’s ruling that it would be “in the public interest” to issue the license. This single act has blocked privately-funded medical marijuana research in this country. The next DEA administrator will likely influence the outcome of a marijuana rescheduling petition currently before the agency. It is critical that an administrator with an open mind toward science and research is at the helm.

    #   #   #   #   #

    The following organizations are calling on President Obama to withdraw the nomination of Ms. Leonhart if she does not end the attacks on individuals acting in compliance with state medical marijuana laws and commit to making decisions related to medical marijuana based on science, not a personal anti-marijuana bias:

    California NORML

    Drug Policy Alliance (DPA)

    Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP)

    Marijuana Policy Project (MPP)

    National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML)

    Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP)

  • by Paul Armentano, NORML Deputy Director January 27, 2010

    It’s the ‘Catch-22’ that has plagued medical marijuana advocates and patients for decades. Lawmakers and health regulators demand clinical studies on the safety and efficacy of medical cannabis, but the federal agency in charge of such research bars these investigations from ever taking place.

    But it took until now for the federal government to finally admit it.

    A spokesperson for the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) told The New York Times last week that the agency does “not fund research focused on the potential medical benefits of marijuana.”

    Why is this admission so significant? Here’s why.

    Under federal law, NIDA (along with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration) must approve all clinical and preclinical research involving marijuana. NIDA strictly controls which investigators are allowed access to the federal government’s lone research supply of pot – which is authorized via a NIDA contract and cultivated and stored at the University of Mississippi.

    In short, no NIDA approval = no marijuana = no scientific studies. And that is, and always has been, the problem.

    But to the folks over at NIDA, there’s no problem at all.

    Speaking to The New York Times in a January 19, 2010 article entitled, “Researchers Find Medical Study of Marijuana Discouraged,” NIDA spokeswoman Shirley Simson said: “As the National Institute on Drug Abuse, our focus is primarily on the negative consequences of marijuana use. We generally do not fund research focused on the potential beneficial medical effects of marijuana.”

    Since NIDA presently oversees an estimated 85 percent of the world’s research on controlled substances, the agency’s ban on medical marijuana research isn’t just limited to the United States’ borders; it extends throughout the planet.

    Previous legal attempts to break NIDA’s bureaucratic logjam have failed to weaken the agency’s iron grip.

    In 2007, U.S. DEA Administrative Law Judge Mary Ellen Bittner ruled that NIDA’s monopolization of marijuana research is not “in the public interest,” and ordered the federal government to allow private manufacturers to produce the drug for research purposes. But in January of last year, DEA Deputy Administrator Michele Leonhart set aside Judge Bittner’s ruling — stating that NIDA possesses “adequate” quantities of cannabis to meet the needs of clinical investigators, and that the agency monopoly on the distribution of marijuana for research is compliant with America’s international treaty obligations. (Notably, on January 26, 2010 President Barack Obama selected Leonhart to be the DEA’s full time Director.)

    Most recently, in November 2009 the American Medical Association’s (AMA) Council on Science and Public Health declared, “Results of short term controlled trials indicate that smoked cannabis reduces neuropathic pain, improves appetite and caloric intake especially in patients with reduced muscle mass, and may relieve spasticity and pain in patients with multiple sclerosis.”

    However, the Council lamented that despite these encouraging preliminary results, “[T]here is a contrast between the relatively small number of patients who have been studied over the past 30 years in controlled clinical trials involving smoked cannabis and survey data from patients with chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis that indicates a significant use of cannabis for self management.”

    And just what is the precise reason for this “contrast?” The AMA failed to specify, but to anyone who has followed this issue, the answer is painfully obvious.

    Nevertheless, the AMA still resolved, “[The] AMA urges 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.”

    But since any future clinical trials would still require NIDA approval — approval that the agency admits won’t be coming any time soon — it remains unclear what effect, if any, the AMA’s declaration will have on facilitating medical marijuana research. If history is any guide, it’s unlikely that the AMA request — much like the cries of tens of thousands of patients before it — will have any effect on NIDA at all.

    [FYI… You can also comment on this essay on Alternet.org’s newly launched SpeakEasy blog here or on the Huffington Post here.]

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