Confirmation Hearing for Michele Leonhart, Proposed DEA Administrator

November 18, 2010

By William T. Koustas

The confirmation hearing for Michele M. Leonhart for the Administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”) was held by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, November 17, 2010.  Ms. Leonhart has been Acting DEA Administrator since the resignation of former DEA Administrator Karen Tandy in the fall of  2007.  Ms. Leonhart was previously (unanimously) confirmed as Deputy DEA Administrator back in 2004 during the administration of President George W. Bush.  President Obama nominated Ms. Leonhart for the position of  DEA Administrator in February 2010.

The relatively non-controversial hearing lasted approximately three hours.  Ms. Leonhart was introduced at the hearing by Senators Diane Feinstein (D-Cal.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.), all of whom endorsed her nomination.

Ms. Leonhart received questions from various senators including Senators Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT).  In response to a question from Chairman Leahy regarding the issue of abuse of prescription drugs, Ms. Leonhart acknowledged that it is a growing problem, particularly among teenagers, and insisted that the answer was a combination of better education and enforcement, including enforcement against organized crime groups illegally distributing prescription drugs.

Senator Kohl pushed Ms. Leonhart to provide comments on draft legislation he has sent to DEA that reduces the barriers patients in long-term care facilities face in order to receive their prescription pain medication.  In its current form, this draft legislation would grant nurses in long-term care facilities the ability to call in orders for controlled substances, including Schedule II drugs, pursuant to a consultation with the patient’s physician.  This legislation would also create a new registration category for nursing homes under DEA jurisdiction, which would require that they certify that all staff has received appropriate training.  Ms. Leonhart acknowledged that this is an important issue and DEA issued a policy statement on it, but will do more as soon as possible.  Senator Whitehouse signaled his support for Senator Kohl’s draft legislation and also chastised DEA for “standing in the way” of electronic prescribing (“e-prescribing”) of controlled substances, to which Ms. Leonhart noted she signed a e-prescribing statement of policy as Acting DEA Administrator, but she would continue to prioritize e-prescribing if she were confirmed.

One of the most interesting lines of questioning came from Senator Sessions, who asked Ms. Leonhart about her views on the legalization of marijuana and Mexican drug cartels.  Ms. Leonhart agreed with Senator Sessions that it is dangerous to legalize marijuana, because she feels that many people focus on the financial benefits of legalizing marijuana while ignoring the social costs of legalization.  She flatly stated that she would enforce federal drug laws in all areas regardless of state law.  Senator Sessions also asked Ms. Leonhart how DEA can help defeat Mexican drug cartels.  Ms. Leonhart did not have a specific answer to this question, but indicated that she thought more could be done by DEA, and she would do so if confirmed.