By Phillip Smith
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has never been known as forward-thinking place when it comes to drug and crime policy, but these days, the hide-bound drug fighting agency is coming off as much more reasonable on drugs than its bosses, President Trump and Attorney General Sessions.
And as is the case with everyone from Republican elected officials to top corporate executives, the Trump administration’s bad case of crazy is forcing even the DEA to distance itself from some of Trump’s more ill-thought and insidious mouthings.
No, the DEA hasn’t gone soft. It’s still out there doing its best to enforce federal drug prohibition, and just last year it was old school enough to refuse to move pot out of Schedule I, but several recent incidents show a DEA behaving in a more responsible manner than the president or his attorney general:
1. The DEA has been accepting applications from scientists to grow marijuana for research purposes, only to be blocked by the Sessions Justice Department.
For years, researchers have complained that a government monopoly on marijuana grown for research purposes has both stifled useful research and illustrated the DEA’s role in hindering science. Late in the Obama administration, though, the agency relented, saying it would take proposals from researchers to grow their own crops.
But The Washington Post reported last week that DEA had received 25 research proposals since it began accepting applications a year ago, but needed DOJ’s approval to move forward. That approval has not been forthcoming, much like DOJ when queried about it by the Post. DOJ may not have had anything to say, but some insiders did.
“They’re sitting on it. They just will not act on these things,” said one unnamed source described by the Post as a “law enforcement official familiar with the matter.”
Another source described as a “senior DEA official” said that as a result, “the Justice Department has effectively shut down this program to increase research registrations.”
2. The DEA head feels compelled to repudiate Trump’s remarks about roughing up suspects.
The Wall Street Journal obtained an email from acting DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg to staff members written after President Trump told police officers in Long Island month that they needn’t be too gentle with suspects. Rosenberg rejected the president’s remarks.
Saying he was writing “because we have an obligation to speak out when something is wrong,” Rosenberg said bluntly that Trump had “condoned police misconduct.”
>Instead of heeding the president, Rosenberg said, DEA agents must “always act honorably” by maintaining “the very highest standards” in the treatment of suspects.
It is a strange state of affairs when an agency many people consider to be the very embodiment of heavy-handed policing has to tell its employees to ignore the president of the United States because he’s being too thuggish.
3. The DEA has to fend off the Trump/Sessions obsession with MS-13.
Trump loves to fulminate against MS-13, the vicious gang whose roots lie in the Salvadoran diaspora during the US-backed civil war of the 1980s, and to use them to conflate the issues of immigration, crime, and drugs. His loyal attorney general has declared war on them. Both insist that breaking MS-13 will be a victory in the war on drugs and are pressuring the DEA to specifically target them.
But, the Post reported, Rosenberg and other DEA officials have told DOJ that the gang “is not one of the biggest players when it comes to distributing and selling narcotics.”
In the DEA view, Mexican cartels are the big problem and MS-13 is simply one of many gangs the cartels use to peddle their wares. DEA administrators have told their underlings to focus on whatever is the biggest threat in their area—not MS-13—because “in many parts of the country, MS-13 simply does not pose a major criminal or drug-dealing threat compared with other groups,” according to unnamed DEA officials.
“The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they could face professional consequences for candidly describing the internal disputes,” the Post noted.
The president and the attorney general are seeking to distort what the DEA sees as its key drug enforcement priorities so Trump can score some cheap demagogic political points, and the DEA is unhappy enough to leak to the press. We are indeed in a strange place.