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Editorial

Position on pot is a bit hazy

It's hard to know what to expect from Michele Leonhart, Obama's nominee to head the Drug Enforcement Administration.

February 22, 2010

When President Obama nominated Michele Leonhart to head the Drug Enforcement Administration last month, those hoping for a sensible federal policy regarding medical marijuana -- one that promotes scientific research into its medicinal value and eschews prosecution when it is used in accordance with local laws -- shivered.

As special agent in charge of the Los Angeles Field Division, Leonhart zealously cracked down on dispensaries (though, it could be argued, that was during the Clinton and Bush years, and she was adhering to White House policy). Then, in 2008, as acting head of the DEA, she denied the application of a University of Massachusetts botanist to cultivate marijuana for research purposes (though that too was in line with the Bush administration's anti-science stance).

So what are we to expect now if she is confirmed by the Senate? Hard to say. Since Obama's swearing in, it has been unclear whether the DEA -- which Leonhart has been running as acting administrator since November 2007 -- is willing to abide by his administration's verbal and written policy of not pursuing medical marijuana operations that do not violate their state's laws.

On Obama's second day in office, the agency raided a dispensary in South Lake Tahoe. Two weeks later, five clubs in Los Angeles were raided, prompting a rebuke from the White House. A few days later, the DEA raided a club in Fort Bragg, Calif. That prompted a speech from U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. suggesting that federal resources shouldn't be focused on medical marijuana. In August, the agency raided more California clubs, and on Sept. 9, it moved against 20 in San Diego. Finally, in October, Holder put his directive in writing.

Nevertheless, last week the DEA in Denver raided a grower after he -- rather imprudently, it must be said -- went on TV to discuss his basement operation. In a jailhouse interview with local media, Chris Bartkowicz, who has a state license, defended his operation and said he believed federal agents would not target it after the Holder order.

After initially replying that marijuana is illegal and that they will raid whomever they please, the Denver agents now say Bartkowicz has more plants than state law permits. He says he doesn't. A judge will decide.

The confusion can be resolved only by Washington. Fourteen states currently have medical marijuana laws, and more are likely to adopt them, multiplying the legal disarray exponentially. Ideally, a coherent policy would flow from the director of the DEA and out to regional offices. But that may not be possible; it's not entirely clear that Leonhart ever received Holder's memo.

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