Drug Reformers Hold Breath as DEA Gets New Leader
May 15, 2015 | Christopher Brown
By Steven Nelson
An Internet search for Chuck Rosenberg, the new acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, reveals more information about his various job changes than his leanings on drug policy. But reformers are hopeful the former prosecutor will sing a different tune than Michele Leonhart, the outspoken DEA leader he's replacing.
Leonhart, a career drug warrior who led the DEA since 2007, famously refused to say heroin is more dangerous than marijuana and reportedly criticized President Barack Obama's stance that pot is less harmful to users than alcohol.
The lowest day of her career, Leonhart told a meeting of sheriffs last year, was when a flag made from hemp fluttered above the U.S. Capitol. She survived a campaign urging her ouster for insubordination, but resigned following congressional furor over wrist-slaps given to DEA agents who attended orgies with prostitutes supplied by drug cartel members.
Rosenberg, who served as chief of staff for FBI Director James Comey, spent a decade as a federal prosecutor. He worked from 1994 to 2000 as an assistant U.S. attorney in Virginia and from 2005 to 2008 as U.S. attorney in the Southern District of Texas and then in the Eastern District of Virginia. In the interim, he advised then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller.
A review of news reports naming Rosenberg revealed few eyebrow-raising drug prosecutions directed by him.
In 2007, he announced charges against three students from Hampden-Sydney College for dealing marijuana and won a guilty plea from a Virginia man whose teenage son killed two people with his gun before dying in a shootout. The man admitted to making a false statement to a licensed firearms dealer (by denying drug use) and illegally possessing a firearm while being a marijuana user.
“This is a stark reminder of the tragic consequences of mixing guns and drugs,” Rosenberg said at the time.
Some reformers who favor treating marijuana like alcohol may find fault in that prosecution. State-legal medical marijuana patients can face similar charges for owning guns, and the same concern theoretically extends to recreational pot users in states where using the drug has been legalized.
Previously, in the busy smuggling ground of South Texas, Rosenberg said the number of drug-related prosecutions his office handled was exceeded only by the number of immigration cases. “There's no shortage of drug-war crimes," he said, according to The Houston Chronicle.
An unnamed senior Obama administration official told the Los Angeles Times Rosenberg is expected to focus less on marijuana and more on drugs such as heroin, the use of which appears to be rising across the country. The paper reported he’s likely to retain the job for the remainder of Obama’s term in office.
"I don't know enough to give him a 'yippee ki-yay,' but he certainly has unlimited possibilities of surpassing his predecessor," says Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., a dogged critic of Leonhart. "There's nothing we've been able to find [about Rosenberg] that indicates anything adverse."
Cohen says he hopes Rosenberg will "follow with what the administration has talked about in terms of treating marijuana more like alcohol and understanding it should be treated as a personal liberty issue and a state's issue, and not a criminal issue that clogs up our prisons and ruins people's lives."
"Nobody goes out and knocks off a 7-Eleven so they can get some money to go to Ben and Jerry's," he says.
Marijuana possession for any reason outside limited research is a federal crime, but the Obama administration generally has allowed states to develop independent pot policies, staking out various enforcement priorities that could trigger federal action. Congress passed and Obama signed into law last year a prohibition on the Department of Justice, DEA’s parent agency, spending funds to undermine state medical pot programs. Two dozen states have laws allowing marijuana for medical use, including four that also have laws allowing for regulated recreational marijuana markets.
Steph Sherer, executive director of the medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, is hopeful Rosenberg will usher in a new approach at the DEA.
“During the course of Obama's time in office, both the administration and Congress have made strides towards reconciling the conflict between state and federal medical marijuana laws, except for the DEA,” she says. “Rosenberg not only has an opportunity to bring the agency into an era that respects state medical marijuana laws, but also a legal obligation not to interfere with those laws.”
The administrator of the DEA has the power to guide enforcement actions, and also can play a significant role in the scheduling of drugs. Marijuana currently is a Schedule I drug, denoting that the U.S. government considers it to have no medical use, thus limiting research and prohibiting doctors from prescribing it legally under federal law.
Marijuana's schedule under the Controlled Substances Act can be changed either through legislation or by administrative action. The DEA, which also regulates the amount of marijuana grown for approved scientific research, has repeatedly denied petitions from interested parties asking for an administrative change, despite a favorable ruling from a DEA administrative law judge in 1988.
The Drug Policy Alliance, which placed a mock job advertisement for a new DEA leader in the newspaper Roll Call, put out a statement expressing cautious optimism about Rosenberg.
“Let’s hope he’s in line with the political consensus in favor of scaling back mass incarceration and the worst harms of the drug war,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the pro-legalization drug reform group.