The acting administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency is proud to say she graduated from Bemidji State University.

Michele M. Leonhart, who graduated from BSU in 1978 with a degree in criminal justice, addressed about 50 people Thursday night during an Alumni Homecoming Lecture at Hagg-Sauer Hall. She is the recipient of the 2009 BSU Outstanding Alumni Award.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

"I'm very humbled and honored to get an alumni award," she said. "You don't know what that means to me."

Benjamin Tsang, a 1971 BSU graduate and director of the University of Ottawa's Reproductive Biology Unit, also gave a lecture Thursday, focusing on ovarian cancer. The lectures were part of BSU's annual homecoming activities.

Leonhart became the DEA's first female special agent in charge in 1977 and in 2004 was named deputy administrator of the DEA, the highest-ranking DEA special agent in charge. She has been acting administrator since November 2007.

"I was drawn to Bemidji because Professor Don Bradel (head of the criminal justice department at BSU) was a former Chicago police officer," Leonhart said. "I thought, 'I want to be taught by a police officer.'"

Leonhart, who hasn't been to Bemidji since she graduated, said she is happy to see that Tamarack Hall is still the tallest building in Bemidji.

"I have very fond memories of the criminal justice department. It has turned out some great students," she said. "We made the right choice years ago. We picked Bemidji State University."

Leonhart wanted to become a police officer since childhood, when she watched "The Untouchables" and "Man From U.N.C.L.E." and read Nancy Drew books while growing up in White Bear Lake, Minn.

At BSU, she attended "phenomenal classes," she said.

"I've been waiting to tell him for 30 years the influence he had on me," Leonhart said of Bradel.

"I want you to graduate from Bemidji and go get a job you're passionate about," she told students, adding that if they do that, they will love to get up in the morning and go to work.

Leonhart expected to become a police officer in Minneapolis or St. Paul, but upon advice from Bradel and others, she expanded her search to include all major police departments in the country.

She ended up in Baltimore, where she realized that virtually all the crime she fought against was related to drugs.

This led her to the DEA, where she has worked for almost 29 years.

"I've had a blast," she said.

Leonhart said drug trafficking is a $322 billion industry.

The main link to the United States is through Mexico, she said, adding that drugs flow from Colombia to Mexico. "We can't just look at the drug problem in Minnesota."

Leonhart said undercover work, financial investigations, and electronic surveillance are ways the DEA fights drug trafficking. The DEA does 75 percent of all judicial wiretaps in the United States.

She spoke about seizures of drugs and money, including 9.5 tons of cocaine seized from a ship, and the world's largest seizure of money, $207 million taken from a methamphetamine trafficker in Mexico.

Leonhart said the belief that the United States is losing the war on drugs is untrue.

There are 900,000 fewer teenagers using drugs today than in 2001, she said. "That's the population of Detroit."

Since 2001, marijuana usage among teens has dropped 25 percent, meth and xtasy use has been cut in half, steroid usage is down 33 percent and LSD use has dropped 53 percent, Leonhart said. "From 2001 to the present, all of us doing what we need to do is making a difference."

Among adults, drug use reached its highest levels in the 1970s, but today drug use among workers is the lowest in 20 years, Leonhart said.

But as illegal drug use continues to drop, the DEA sees rising abuse of pharmaceutical drugs such as Vicodin.

"This is where we need to focus in the future," Leonhart said.

Giving back

"The legacy of our alumni really tells the story of Bemidji State University," BSU President Jon Quistgaard said. "It's important for alumni to come back and share their experiences."

BSU graduates can make meaningful accomplishments at all levels, Quistgaard said. "They need to see these success stories."

"It's really neat to have someone from DEA headquarters in Washington, D.C., come to Bemidji and talk about local and international problems," Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp said. "We are very proud of her. It's neat to have someone from Minnesota, a graduate of BSU, be head of the DEA."

Ryan Taggart, a BSU senior from Crosby majoring in criminal justice, visited with Leonhart after her lecture.

"This man has a future," Leonhart said, noting that Taggart has served in the Army National Guard and served a tour in Iraq. "He's doing everything."

Leonhart said the DEA has always treated men and women the same. "It's really an agency that didn't get involved in gender politics. It just let us do the job."

"You're going to deal with the scum of the earth, and you're going to have to do everything that a man does ... and it's going to be long hours, and it's going to be rough, and you know, not every woman is looking for that kind of career," Leonhart said. "I wanted the scum of the earth. I went to the right agency because they deal with the scum of the earth."

Leonhart is married to Gene Johns, a narcotics detective with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's office. They have two sons and split their time between California and Washington, D.C.

"It works," she said. "We're both workaholics and we both care very deeply about each other and our families."

Her husband was in the audience Thursday night, as was her mother, Marilyn Leonhart of White Bear Lake.

Leonhart will meet with the Headwaters Safe Trails Task Force and the Paul Bunyan Drug Task Force today. Her next stop is Denver, where she will address the International Association of Chiefs of Police.