Image: CBS News
Image: CBS News

Can New DEA Head Clean House?

WASHINGTON, DC. 14 May, 2015 – Chuck Rosenberg will have the job of cleaning house at the DEA, as its new head, Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced Wednesday. Rosenberg, the FBI director’s chief of staff, steps into the shoes of Michele Leonhart, a Drug Enforcement Agency administrator best known to the hemp and cannabis industry for her opposition to legalizing cannabis, even for medical research, and her refusal to concede in Congress hearings that cannabis is not as dangerous as heroin.

Having presided over a laundry list of scandals since her appointment in 2007, Leonhart announced in April that she would step down after a Justice Department report revealed yet another instance of corruption and conflict of interest within her agency. The report stated that DEA agents posted in Columbia received “money, expensive gifts and weapons from drug cartel members” and were guests at sex parties where prostitutes were supplied by the local drug cartels. Local Colombian police stood guard at the parties, protecting the agents’ firearms and other property.

In the hearings and investigation that followed, members of Congress learned that the agents involved were not sacked after Leonhart learned of their conduct. Leonhart continued to defend her agents amidst harsh criticism from the Capitol. The former director had been increasingly at odds with the Obama administration over cannabis decriminalization efforts and its hands-off policy on states that have legalized cannabis for medical or recreational use. In the wake of the scandal, then-Attorney General Eric Holder issued a warning to DEA employees that solicitation of prostitutes is not acceptable for a DEA agent, even when off-duty.

On Wednesday, the advocacy organization Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) placed a phony “Help Wanted” advertisment in Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call that parodied perceived flaws in Leonhart’s regime in the guise of a job description for the incoming appointee. According to the DPA ad, the new DEA head’s mission would be to “prolong the failed war on drugs,” with a list of responsibilities that included “Mass Incarceration,” “Police State Tactics,” “Obstruction of Science,” “Subverting Democracy” and “Undermining Human Rights.”

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the DPA, called for reform of not just the DEA but broader U.S. and global drug policy in an op-ed for The Daily Chronic. “Drug prohibition, like alcohol Prohibition, breeds crime, corruption, and violence – and creates a situation where law enforcement officers must risk their lives in a fight that can’t be won,” Nadelmann said. “The optimal drug policy would reduce the role of criminalization and the criminal justice system in drug control to the greatest extent possible, while protecting public safety and health.”

The DEA was established by President Nixon in 1973, tasked with enforcing the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and combating drug smuggling operations. Critics of the agency claim that many benefits of cannabis and other substances remain unrecognized due to the difficulty of conducting legal scientific research. While it is not the DEA’s decision to determine how drugs are classified under the CSA, the agency has historically exercised discretion on how its agents wage the federal “War on Drugs.”  Actions taken last year by the agency resulted in the seizure of industrial hemp seeds destined for a legal research program operated by the state of Kentucky, which then sued the DEA. A similar hemp seed seizure occurred only weeks after, this time involving  Colorado.  Lawmakers on Capitol Hill responded by prohibiting the DEA from interfering with state hemp laws.

The incident illustrated a concern expressed by numerous organizations, including the DPA, the Cato Institute, NORML and the pharmacology field over perceived obstruction of legitimate research and general overreach in furtherance of an ideological agenda. The White House’s Office of Drug Control Policy  places the total value of illegal drugs sold in the U.S. at over $60 billion a year, data that suggests, when compared with DEA seizure rates, that the agency supposedly leading the charge against drug smuggling is intercepting only 1% of the drugs that flow into the country.

DEA scandals are nothing new. During Leonhart’s tenure alone, the agency achieved new lows:

  • DEA agent Sandy Gonzalez was punished when he blew the whistle on the “House of Death” scandal in 2009, in which an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent “Lalo” helped murder at least a dozen people in Juarez, Mexico. After Gonzalez sent a letter alerting officials to the agent’s role, he was disciplined by the DEA, Homeland Security, and the office of then-U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton and received the first negative performance review of his 30-year career, causing him to take an early retirement. He later won a $385,000 settlement.
  • In the “Fast and Furious” scandal of 2011, DEA agents were found to have smuggled or laundered millions of dollars in drug profits for Mexican drug cartels in a sting operation that appeared to facilitate the very crimes the agency is tasked with preventing.
  • A year later a DEA-assisted operation in Honduras somehow led to the massacre of four indigenous civilians; questions put to the agency by human rights organizations and members of Congress remain unanswered.
  • In 2013 the DEA settled a $4.1 million lawsuit with Daniel Chong, a University of California San Diego student who was left unattended and unfed in a holding cell for five days.
  • Also in 2013, the DEA was accused of misconduct after quietly rehiring discredited “supersnitch” Andrew Chambers, a DEA informant who provided 15 years of false trial testimony that sent hundreds of people to prison has been removed from the payroll in 2000 amid a vast cover-up scandal. Senior DEA officials claimed to know nothing about Chambers’ well-documented lies but the agency’s own records showed otherwise, and a St. Louis Post-Dispatch investigation blew the scandal open.

A then-federal public defender, H. Dean Steward, won a lawsuit that forced the DEA to disclose that it had paid more than $2.2 million to Chambers, much of it in cash, and showed that the government had hidden Chambers’ history of arrests from defense lawyers.  More recently Steward, now a Southern California defense attorney,  said the rehiring of Chambers was obviously Michele Leonhart’s decison, saying in a 2013 interview: “She was his handling agent. … I’m convinced he’s back in business because of her.”  

The Chambers cover-up was not an isolated instance. In a recent report the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General found that the DEA withheld information and obstructed investigations. Critics refer to a systemic problem within the agency, where a culture of concealment has flourished. “Supporting criminal cases with an admitted liar and perjurer perverts the entire system. To do it twice over 20-plus years is shocking,” said Steward.

Chuck Rosenberg enters the DEA at a time when the agency’s reputation has never been more tainted.  “He has proven himself as an exceptional leader, a skilled problem-solver and a consummate public servant of unshakable integrity,” Attorney General Lynch said, in announcing the appointment. “I can think of no better individual to lead this storied agency.”

Rosenberg has a lengthy Justice Department career. He was a US attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, where he built a reputation for hardline enforcement of mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine. Rosenberg has worked with FBI Director James B. Comey for the past eighteen months on criminal investigative issues, management issues and counterterrorism. Comey said Rosenberg is “one of the finest people public servants” he has ever known and said he would be “sorely missed” at the FBI.


About Jennifer Knight

Jennifer Knight is a Potcha senior editor with two decades experience in publishing and news media in the U.S. and abroad. Jennifer is a founding board member of Cannabisearch. Her forthcoming book Colorado Pot Guide will be published in late 2015.

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