Departing DEA Chief Was Not a Fan of Trump's Get-Tough Rhetoric

Acting DEA chief Chuck Rosenberg did not provide any future plans or reasons for leaving, an agency spokeswoman said. Acting DEA chief Chuck Rosenberg did not provide any future plans or reasons for leaving, an agency spokeswoman said. Alex Brandon / AP

Drug Enforcement Administration employees on Tuesday received a surprise email wishing them well, written by their acting boss of two years, Chuck Rosenberg.

The Obama appointee who had been running the agency since 2015 will leave Oct.1, the agency confirmed to Government Executive, reacting to a story first reported by the Washington Post. The spokeswoman said Rosenberg provided no reasons for leaving and no future plans.

News reports quoted the leaked email as saying, “We must earn and keep the public trust and continue to hold ourselves to the very highest standards. Ours is an honorable profession and, so, we will always act honorably.” 

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Many observers linked the departing statement of Rosenberg to an earlier clash with Trump. The president had said in July (jokingly, he later insisted) that law enforcement officers should purposely treat arrestees brusquely and without being “too nice.”

Rosenberg at that time wrote to agency employees criticizing that advice, saying, “We have an obligation to speak out when something is wrong,” according to news reports.

The attorney who had served as senior counselor to FBI Director James Comey, whom Trump fired,  also indicated to the Justice Department this summer that he did not wish to be considered as permanent DEA chief or for any other Justice Department job. More recently, he is reported to have said, “Trump has little respect for the law.”

One front-runner to replace Rosenberg, according to anonymous sources within the agency, is Col. Joseph Fuentes, head of the New Jersey State Police. (The White House did not respond to inquiries.)

During Rosenberg’s tenure, the DEA was criticized by the Justice inspector general for leaving its drug seizures vulnerable to theft. He clashed with the Obama White House after a policeman killed an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, siding with then-FBI chief Comey in asserting that the resulting enhanced scrutiny of police had a “chilling effect” that allowed more crime.

Rosenberg also had run-ins with advocates for legalization of marijuana. Though he had made plans in 2016 to issue more certification permits for the plant’s cultivation for medical research use, the Trump Justice Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions blocked him. But he angered marijuana advocates after referring to the plant’s medical applications as “a joke,” according to The Huffington Post.

"It was Chuck Rosenberg's memo on [Cannabidiol] that actively undermined the legal development of the American hemp industry and his tenure will be long remembered as being out of step with what Americans know to be true about the medicinal benefits of marijuana,’ said John Ryan, co-founder of Ananda Hemp, in a statement given Government Executive by the NISONCO cannabis advocacy group. “The next head of the DEA now has the responsibility to bridge the gap between outdated policy and public opinion so we can grow the next great American industry." 

Rosenberg’s replacement will also have an impact on the ongoing debate about criminal justice reform aimed at reducing drug sentences to free up prison space used by nonviolent offenders. “Any debate in the Senate for the next nominee is an opportunity to debate the direction of U.S. drug policy, and we look forward to that,” said Bill Piper, senior director of national affairs at the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance.

Others think the DEA itself needs major reforms. “I have mixed feelings” about Rosenberg’s resignation, said retired Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Stephen Downing, a member of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership who has worked with the DEA since the Nixon administration. “You have to respect the man’s integrity if he recognizes that the people he works for have no respect for the law. But at the same time, I would hope these guys who are constitutional officers would stick around to protect our Constitution.”

As for Rosenberg’s replacement, “I expect more of what we’re seeing from Trump and Sessions, a rollback of real advances we’ve started to make in criminal justice reform, which is so deeply needed in this country,” Downing told Government Executive. “We need to continue to roll back the Prohibition aspects of the DEA, whose culture needs a great deal of reform.”

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