The anti-Trump resistance has a new hero. Chuck Rosenberg, acting head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, announced his resignation on September 26, citing concerns that President Donald Trump was not interested in the rule of law. Rosenberg had previously made headlines when he sent an e-mail to some 10,000 DEA staff members countering the statements of President Trump that law enforcement officers shouldn’t be afraid to rough up “thugs.” Rosenberg has been a staunch supporter of rationalizing the DEA and trying to work more closely with communities to find more effective ways of enforcing the drug laws.
Under the Obama administration, the DEA signaled some potential reforms to the agency. They requested scientific studies about the potential benefits of marijuana, and conceded to public pressure to reverse their decision to put kratom on the list of most prohibited drugs without public input.
But none of this changes the fact that the DEA oversees a multibillion-dollar enterprise whose primary purpose is to criminalize millions of people for the use of drugs. Nearly half of those incarcerated in federal prison are there for drug violations, including 60 percent of all female inmates. The DEA has kept marijuana on the list of Schedule 1 drugs in the face of widespread evidence of its benign nature. Racial disparities in the policing of the drug war remain profound.
The Washington Post reported this week that the pharmaceutical industry holds immense sway over the DEA. Since 2000, the drug industry has hired at least 56 former DEA and Department of Justice officials. Others have gone on to work for them indirectly as lobbyists and lawyers. When Congress gutted regulations that allowed the DEA to restrict the distribution of opioid pills tied to hundreds of thousands of overdose deaths, this was done in cooperation with Rosenberg and his team.
There is also a culture of corruption within the DEA. Officers are regularly arrested for taking bribes from drug dealers, stealing drugs and reselling them, and having sex parties with prostitutes hired by drug cartels. Instead of mourning the loss of an enlightened head of the DEA, it’s time to join the Drug Policy Alliance and call for its abolition. In my new book The End of Policing, I lay out the following alternatives for addressing the public-health issues raised by drugs without relying on police.
The use of police to wage a war on drugs has been a nightmare. Not only have the police failed to reduce drug use and the harm it produces, they have actually worsened those harms and destroyed the lives of millions of Americans through pointless criminalization. Ultimately, we must create robust public-health programs and economic-development strategies to reduce demand and help people manage their drug problems in ways that reduce harm—while keeping in mind that most drug users are not addicts. We also need to look at the economic dynamics that drive the black market and the economic and social misery that drive the most harmful patterns of drug use. Harm-reduction, public-health, and legalization strategies combined with robust economic development of poor communities could dramatically reduce the negative impact of drugs on society without relying on police, courts, and prisons.