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Clear the Fumes at the DEA

August 05, 2003

Suzanne Pfeil suffers severe pain and muscle spasms from post-polio syndrome. One fall day last year, Pfeil, now 44, awoke to find federal agents pointing automatic weapons. They were raiding her Santa Cruz assisted-living facility, which is a provider of medical marijuana under a measure that the state's voters passed in 1996. It's the sort of armed raid that California could soon see more of, with the confirmation of Karen P. Tandy, a federal associate deputy attorney general, as head of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Tandy did not order the raid against marijuana activist Pfeil in particular, but for the last two years she has coordinated the nation's overall national drug enforcement strategy, including an aggressive crackdown on California and eight other states that authorize medicinal marijuana. Last month, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) gave Tandy a chance to distance herself from DEA policy, asking whether she would support a "moratorium on the raids of medical marijuana providers until Congress could hold hearings on this matter." Tandy emphatically said no, adding that "marijuana itself ... has not been shown to have medicinal benefits."

When Durbin countered with a federal Institute of Medicine report concluding otherwise, Tandy said she was "not personally familiar" with the landmark 1999 report.

Tandy should look at the medical record, and at a stinging assessment this year by the White House Office of Management and Budget. The OMB faulted the DEA for its murky, diffuse agenda and for being "unable to demonstrate progress in reducing the availability of illegal drugs in the United States."

Tandy should also consult the DEA's own Web site, which lists its two top responsibilities as prosecuting "major violators of controlled substance laws operating at interstate and intergovernmental levels" and "criminals and drug gangs who perpetuate violence in our communities and terrorize citizens through fear and intimidation." No mention of people like Pfeil, who last month handed Tandy in person a letter about her experience.

Senate leaders hastily shoved through a late-night vote last week approving Tandy for the DEA job. Obviously they were aware that Americans have little taste for training guns on chronically ill people and their doctors. Tandy, now in a position where she can make policy and not just carry it out, has a chance to use more common sense in drug policy and should grab it.

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