01/22/17 Kemp Chester

This week we take a closer look at the new Acting Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Kemp Chester, and ask: are the days of a federal drug czar are numbered, or will the agency transform itself for the Trump era?

Century of Lies
Sunday, January 22, 2017
Kemp Chester
Download: Audio icon col012217.mp3



JANUARY 22, 2017


DEAN BECKER: The failure of drug war is glaringly obvious to judges, cops, wardens, prosecutors, and millions more now calling for for decriminalization, legalization, the end of prohibition. Let us investigate the Century Of Lies.

DOUG MCVAY: Hello, and welcome to Century Of Lies. Century Of Lies is a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

On Friday, January Twentieth, the White House got a new occupant, and the White House website underwent drastic alterations. Several sections were deleted entirely, including the entire Office of National Drug Control Policy. Fortunately, the National Archives has preserved that site in its entirety, including publications, drug strategy reports, research, et cetera. The archived ONDCP website is at obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/ondcp

A search of the new WhiteHouse.gov website late Friday afternoon turned up just 7 pages that mention the word "drug." Five of them were pages about former Presidents or First Ladies. Of the remaining two, one was a new policy statement, titled "Standing Up For Our Law Enforcement Community". Here's the paragraph that mentions drugs. Quote:

"President Trump is committed to building a border wall to stop illegal immigration, to stop the gangs and the violence, and to stop the drugs from pouring into our communities. He is dedicated to enforcing our border laws, ending sanctuary cities, and stemming the tide of lawlessness associated with illegal immigration."

End quote.

The other mention of "drug" is on the page describing the Executive Branch. This page contains no mention at all of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The page describes the Executive Office of the President but mentions just two out of several offices within the EOP. Those two are the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of the United States Trade Representative. All the various cabinet posts are also listed and described, and the page makes note of a few commissions.

The word "drug" appears three times on that Executive Branch page. It's used twice in the description of the Department of Health and Human Services, but only in reference to food and drug safety and the FDA. The word "drug" is also used once in the description of the Justice Department. Here's that language, quote:

"The DOJ is comprised of 40 component organizations, including the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Marshals, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The Attorney General is the head of the DOJ and chief law enforcement officer of the federal government. The Attorney General represents the United States in legal matters, advises the President and the heads of the executive departments of the government, and occasionally appears in person before the Supreme Court."

End quote.

That's it. But that's just a website revamp, surely, I mean, things happen. Ah, but that's not all. The ONDCP twitter account, which was @ONDCP, has also been deactivated. Now, that is serious.

Whatever the new administration decides it wants to do with it, ONDCP was created by an act of Congress so it will continue to exist -- until it doesn't exist anymore. The new acting director is Kemp Chester. Before ONDCP he had a career in military intelligence – and the oxymoron was intended. His ONDCP bio is thankfully still available through the National Archives, at obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/ondcp/kemp-chester

“Kemp Chester has been the Associate Director for the National Heroin Coordination Group at ONDCP since October 2015. Before coming to ONDCP, Mr. Chester was the Senior Director for National Security and Intelligence at a private sector consulting firm in Washington, D.C.. Prior to that, he retired from the Army after 27 years of service, his last tour being at the Defense Intelligence Agency where he was the Deputy Director for Intelligence of the Americas Regional Center and Chief of the Office of Counternarcotics Worldwide. Mr. Chester is a graduate of The Citadel and has Masters Degrees from the University of South Carolina, the National War College, the Naval College of Command and Staff, and the School for Advanced Military Studies."

End quote.

I doubt that the administration is in any hurry to name anyone to that role. I wouldn't be at all surprised if they keep him there for a while, possibly even appoint him as the actual director. Thing is, we don't know who they're looking at for that job. The new administration hasn't even mentioned ONDCP yet. Well, one person has been talking about it has been Pam Bondi, the Florida attorney general, who seems to be doing one of those odd political dances where they publicly refuse to comment on the rumor that they're in line for a new job, while behind the scenes they're the ones putting that rumor around. Pam Bondi was on the transition team, so we'll have to wait and see.

Let's hear from Kemp Chester. He testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights and Global Women's Issues in May of 2016. That hearing, titled “Cartels and the U.S. Heroin Epidemic: Combating Drug Violence and Public Health Crisis,” was chaired by Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio. Let's start with Chester's opening statement.

KEMP CHESTER: Chairman Rubio, Ranking Member Boxer, and members of the Subcommittee, thank you for inviting me here this morning to discuss the public health and public safety issues resulting from heroin use, the government of Mexico's efforts to reduce the availability of heroin in the United States, and US-Mexico cooperation to address heroin issues in both countries.

In 2014, the most current year for which we have data, more than 47,000 Americans, or approximately 129 people each day, died from a drug overdose. The threat posed -- of the overdose deaths in 2014, 22 percent involved heroin. The threat posed by heroin has continued to grow dramatically over the past several years, and since 2007, deaths involving heroin have risen 340 percent, from 2,402 in 2007 to 10,574 in 2014.

Heroin use has spread into suburban and rural communities, and is growing among most socioeconomic classes, age groups, and races. Mexico is currently the primary supplier of heroin to the United States, with Mexican drug traffickers cultivating opium poppy, producing heroin, and smuggling the finished product into the United States. Poppy cultivation in Mexico has increased substantially in recent years, rising from 17,000 hectares in 2014 to 28,000 hectares in 2015, which could yield potential production of 70 metric tonnes of pure heroin.

The heroin crisis is being compounded by the re-emergence of illicit Fentanyl, a power synthetic opioid more potent than heroin. Illicit Fentanyl is sometimes mixed with powder heroin to increase its effects, or mixed with dilutants and sold as synthetic heroin. Increasingly, Fentanyl is being pressed into pill form and sold as counterfeit prescription opioid pills. The majority of the illicit Fentanyl in the US is clandestinely produced in Mexico, or in China.

Fentanyl is extremely dangerous and deadly. In 2014, there were more than 5,544 drug overdose deaths involving synthetic narcotics other than methadone, a category that includes Fentanyl. This number has more than doubled from two years earlier.

US-Mexico engagement regarding heroin has been robust. In October 2015, ONDCP Director Michael Botticelli participated in a bilateral security dialogue, where the importance of increased poppy eradication efforts by the government of Mexico, as well as drug interdiction, clandestine laboratory destruction, and the disruption of precursor chemical trafficking, were all highlighted.

In early March, Director Botticelli, Ambassador William Brownfield, the Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, and I, met with the Mexican Attorney General Gomez, and she announced her role as the synchronizer of Mexico's efforts to disrupt the production of heroin and illicit Fentanyl. Importantly, we agreed then to jointly develop a focused, national plan to concentrate Mexico's efforts against heroin and Fentanyl.

The urgent need to sustain progress toward addressing the nation's heroin and Fentanyl crisis requires increased collaboration between federal agencies and with our partners working at the state, local, and tribal level, where the crisis is felt most deeply. In November 2015, the team that I lead, the National Heroin Coordination Group, was created within the Office of National Drug Control Policy, to form the hub of a network of interagency partners, who will leverage their home agency authorities and resources into harmonized inter-agency activities against the heroin and Fentanyl supply chains to the United States.

The ONDCP-funded High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas, or HIDTA program, the locally based program that responds to drug trafficking issues facing specific areas of the country, has also been instrumental. In August 2015, ONDCP committed $2.5 million in HIDTA funds to develop a heroin response strategy. This innovative project combines prevention, education, intelligence, and enforcement resources to address the heroin threat through seven regional HIDTAs covering 17 states and the District of Columbia.

So, while we have laid a firm foundation to address the heroin crisis, much remains to be accomplished. For example, we do have gaps in our capability to detect illicit Fentanyl at our borders, and our Mexican partners could certainly do more in the areas of opium poppy eradication and clandestine laboratory identification and neutralization.

And while my remarks have focused on addressing the supply side of the opioid crisis, we must address opioid use disorders with a balanced approach that also regards addiction as a public health matter, using substance abuse prevention and treatment strategies and recovery support services. In his FY2017 budget, President Obama proposed $1 billion in new mandatory funding to expand the availability of evidence-based strategies, such as medication assisted treatment, and to extend the availability of substance abuse treatment providers.

ONDCP will continue to work with our international partners, federal government departments and agencies, and our partners at the state, local, and tribal levels, to reduce heroin and Fentanyl production and trafficking, and the profound effect these dangerous drugs are having in our communities.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Kemp Chester, now serving as the Acting Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, testifying at a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee May 2016 hearing on drug cartels and heroin addiction. At the time, Chester was associate director of the ONDCP and head of the National Heroin Coordination Group.

You're listening to Century of Lies. We're a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

Now let's hear Acting Director Chester answer some questions. First an exchange with Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, and then Chairman Rubio.

SENATOR TIM KAINE: Thank you, Mister Chair, and thanks to the witnesses. First, to get an idea of the scope of this challenge, on the Mexican side, in terms of the black tar heroin, is the poppy production for this heroin still significantly confined to the state of Nayarit? Or is it more broadly distributed? Mexico's a big country, so if we talk about a problem in Mexico, I worry that we're not being specific enough.

KEMP CHESTER: Yes, senator. Our latest crop estimate that was produced about two months ago shows two major growing areas in Mexico. One in the state of Guerrero, and then another in what's called the Tri-Border region up in the northern part of the country. Those are the two major growing areas in Mexico. With very, very small, kind of sporadic spots in other parts of the country, but they're basically concentrated in those two areas.

SENATOR TIM KAINE: And then, in the, Fentanyl is made in labs, and I gather that most of the Fentanyl that comes in is either coming in, it's made in China, and maybe transited in through Mexico, or also made in labs in Mexico. Are those the two main sources for Fentanyl?

KEMP CHESTER: That's correct. So -- and I will tell you that our understanding and our awareness of Fentanyl traffic is, has evolved dramatically over the last six months, as we've seen the crisis rise. So, in order of magnitude, I cannot tell you, but what I can tell you is that China is a significant supplier of Fentanyl to the United States, where it is ordered by individuals on the dark web or on the internet, and then using parcel post or the Postal Service, shipped directly to them.

We also know that Fentanyl is shipped into Mexico, in some cases mixed with dilutants, and smuggled across the southwest border, and that there are precursor chemicals that are shipped into Mexico that can be used for the production of Fentanyl, clandestine Fentanyl, in laboratories in Mexico. So, as you look at the vectors coming into the United States, those are the two main ones that we see for finished Fentanyl coming into the United States, or its manufacture in Mexico.

SENATOR TIM KAINE: I want to talk, Mister Chester, about your written testimony. I'm sorry I didn't get here for your entire oral testimony, but, on page one, there are several principal factors contributing to the current nationwide heroin crisis. The increased availability of heroin in the US market, the availability of purer forms of heroin that allow for non-intravenous use, its relatively low price, and a relatively small percentage of non-medical users of opioid prescription drugs transitioning to heroin.

I'm trying to unpack that statement, and I'm wondering if your statement puts enough of a finger on the prescription opioid problem. I have heard it stated through Michael Botticelli and others that 80 percent of those who OD on heroin in this country, not fatal ODs, but total ODs, 80 percent of those who OD on heroin started their addiction to opioids by being addicted to prescription opioids, and then transition to heroin because they could get it for a lower price. Is that an accurate statement?

KEMP CHESTER: No, senator, and i'm glad you asked that question. Of the numbers of individuals who non-medically use opioids, and then transition into heroin, that number is actually relatively small, it's about 3.6 --

SENATOR TIM KAINE: Non-medical use.

KEMP CHESTER: That's correct. So, the non-medical use of a prescription opioid, like OxyContin, in kind of the traditional, got it from the medicine cabinet, got it from friends or family members. The percentage of those individuals who transition to heroin use is relatively low, it's about 3.6 percent. But conversely, of individuals who are non-treatment users of heroin, 80 percent of them actually abused a prescription opioid in the past, so while there's not a direct causation between the two, the non-medical use of opioids is a strong risk factor for eventual heroin use.

SENATOR TIM KAINE: And even the medical use of opioids can be a risk factor for eventual heroin use, correct?

KEMP CHESTER: Yes, senator, that's right. So, so, you know, an opioid in and of itself, and its effect on the body, obviously it's a very addictive drug, and effects the body in unique ways, as an opioid. So those individuals who take opioids, whether they get them from a doctor, or whether they get them from a friend or a family member for non-medical reasons, are at risk for eventual opioid addiction, if not used properly, that is correct.

SENATOR TIM KAINE: And, you cite in the testimony, it's the relatively low price of heroin, and that's relatively low compared to past trends, but also compared to the cost of opioid based prescription drugs, correct?

KEMP CHESTER: That's correct. So, so the street price of a gram of heroin compared to the street price, if you will, of an opioid pill or an Oxy pill, or something of that nature, that's correct. That was, that's what we consider to be one of the contributing factors, and so it's the availability and the general low price, and the purity, that have all been contributing factors to the current crisis that we're with heroin, that's correct.

SENATOR TIM KAINE: Mister Foote talked about, you know, the work that we've done in this body, and we're trying to harmonize with the House in this recent CARA, Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act. We really believe it here, and I think it's now bipartisan, we're seeing in all of our states, that if we don't get ahold of the culture of over-prescription of opioid based prescription drugs, you know, we're just hollowing out communities, rural, urban, suburban, rich and poor.

And this was a drug addiction that came out of the medicine cabinet, in many instances it was somebody, a trusted professional in a white coat, that was handing somebody this prescription, saying this is going to do you good, and it's not going to do you harm, driven by, you know, inadequate science, driven by, frankly, marketing scams, and that is inextricably related to this heroin issue. And so I think it's kind of hard to deal with the heroin issue in the abstract without talking about this culture of over-prescription that hopefully we are working together to reel in.

Last question I want to ask, and it's probably too early to know this, but, in terms of the growth of the number of hectares of poppy production in Mexico, do we have any evidence to suggest whether that is at all connected with marijuana legalization in the United States? I actually kind of like this notion of the states as labs, and they can experiment, and we can see what happens. But, I've heard it said, and I don't know whether there's any evidence to back it up, that the legalization of marijuana in some states, that has allowed marijuana to be grown, has taken hectares of land that were used for marijuana cultivation, and, well, we don't have a market for our marijuana anymore because there's competition so we'll switch to something like poppies to produce black tar heroin. Is there any evidence of that?

KEMP CHESTER: We've actually looked closely, kind of, at the crop transference to see if there's anything there, and I can tell you that we, at this time, whether it's too early or whether it doesn't exist, we can't definitively say that farmers have decided to switch from one crop to another in Mexico. We -- we can't say that with any degree of authority at this point.

SENATOR TIM KAINE: But that's something that you're going to continue to monitor?

KEMP CHESTER: It's something that we do watch, yes.

SENATOR TIM KAINE: Great. Great. Thanks, Mister Chairman.

SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: Just to interject on that point, it's my sense, and you're both experts at this, that very few people wake up in the morning and say I'm going to go shoot heroin, just for the first time. There is a gateway to the heroin use. A lot of it is being driven by people that were prescribed prescription opiates, they now become physically dependent, the prescription opiate is cut off, they're going through severe withdrawal, and the only thing that addresses that withdrawal, if they're not in treatment, is access to heroin, and that brings all sorts of problems.

Absent that, what is the other gateway? How are people, how does someone get dependent on heroin, minus the prescription drug gateway, which we've already discussed?

KEMP CHESTER: Senator, it -- and that's -- it's a difficult question, just because you're dealing with a number of variables down at the individual level as the reasons why people engage in the behavior that we do. We do, we do know a couple of things: that heroin in general terms is kind of at the end of a trajectory of long-term drug use, and that a high number of heroin users are actually poly-drug users. And so, they're not an exclusive heroin user, they get the drugs that are available to them, and because of the high availability of heroin, a lot of times that's heroin.

The other thing that we look at, in -- we do a number of surveys to look at this, but what we realize is that youth behavior, from the ages of about 13 to about 18, is a very strong factor in terms of risk taking behavior, in terms of, you know, underage drinking, tobacco, marijuana, things of that nature, in shaping youth attitudes eventually that they carry with them for the rest of their lives in terms of risk taking behavior for using, for using other drugs.

So, I think it would -- what we can't say is that we can put a finger on this or that particular reason why a person does something, but we do know that the availability of drugs in society, obviously increases the chances that an individual who's inclined to use them is going to intersect them at some particular point in time. I think that's one of the -- with the discussion we had about the availability of heroin being a driving factor.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: So, just to understand your testimony, we understand the pill problem that leads to that. But what you're basically saying is, if someone, especially at some point early, earlier in their life, begins to use a substance -- alcohol, whatever it may be, an intoxicant of some sort -- there now starts a potential trend where the next thing is, well, what's out there that's better? What's out there that's stronger? Once you've crossed that barrier, it could unleash this cycle of, basically a set of dominoes, that ultimately lead you to the heroin point.

KEMP CHESTER: Yes, sir, and it's not, you know, and again it's not direct causation, but it certainly is risk-taking behavior.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: Right, in general.

KEMP CHESTER: And, you know, and patterns of behavior, and that's why the prevention strategies, particularly through programs like the Drug Free Communities Program that ONDCP manages, are incredibly important because they're locally based, and they allow trusted individuals to be able to speak to people at very, very young ages about things just like that, and their attitudes about drugs and foreign substances and the body, and things of that nature. So, they're able to, through evidence based prevention strategies, be able to talk to people at those young ages, when they're vulnerable and shaping their ideas about drug use that they carry with them for the rest of their lives.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Kemp Chester, now the acting director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, testifying about heroin and Mexico at a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in May 2016.

Another official from the last administration is being kept on is Chuck Rosenberg, the Acting Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration. He'll continue to be the acting administrator. He too could end up being in that job for quite a while, we just don't know. A couple of weeks ago we heard portions of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing at which Rosenberg was testifying, it was a DEA oversight hearing. The segment we played was an exchange between Administrator Rosenberg and Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III. Beauregard as we all know has been nominated for Attorney General. They were certainly friendly in that hearing, and I imagine Rosenberg is high up on Beauregard's short list for the Administrator's position.

So, let's take a look at Chuck Rosenberg, Acting Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration. Like Kemp Chester, he's only been at his current agency for a short time. He was appointed as acting administrator in 2015, when former administrator Michelle Leonhart was pushed out over a sex scandal involving several agents in Colombia who had been partying with prostitutes who were on the payroll of the drug cartels.

Leonhart was a career DEA agent, so in addition to the thinly veiled sexism, there was a strong perception that as an agent herself she would be unable to impose discipline. There is no question that the DEA needs to be brought under control. The inspector general's report in September of 2016, detailing how the DEA's confidential informant payment program had gone completely out of control, underscored the fact that it was a systemic problem in the agency.

Rosenberg came out of the Justice Department originally. He started as a prosecutor in the tax division during the administration of George H. W. Bush. He then became an assistant US attorney during the Clinton administration. Now, he left the Justice Department in 2000, but he came back in 2002, to go to work for the Director of the FBI. In 2003 he became counselor to John Ashcroft, who was then the Attorney General, then after that, he took a job as chief of staff to a Deputy Attorney General named James Comey. Yes, that Comey, the current director of the FBI.

Rosenberg rose to become chief of staff to then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in 2007, left the Department in 2008 at the end of GW Bush's second term, and went into private practice. Then in 2013, Rosenberg went to work once again for James Comey as Comey's chief of staff and counselor at the FBI. That's the job he left in 2015 when he went to work at DEA as the acting administrator.

I'm not putting any bets on how long he's going to be at this job or whether Rosenberg might even get the actual nomination to be the administrator, but it does appear to me that he could be there for a while. Chuck will remain the Acting Administrator at DEA in the new administration, at least for the time being. How long he lasts is anyone's guess. He gets along well with the likely new Attorney General, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, so, we'll see.

Kemp Chester, now. You know, I think they'll probably keep Chester at ONDCP, and maintain his PR focus on heroin. He's not a harm reductionist, he's not a treatment advocate. He came out of G2 in the military, and the Defense Intelligence Agency where he was responsible for counternarcotics work. Drug warriors have two new flavors of the month these days, heroin and Mexico, and he's an expert on both. The real question is whether or not the drug czar's office will survive at all. It's going to be interesting to see whether ONDCP will be included in the new administration's budget for fiscal year 2018. I mean, we still haven't gotten a real budget for fiscal year 2017, which started back on October First, so we might get some clues from that one. Possibly, some trial balloons will be floated, at least.

On the other hand, ONDCP is an agency, it's a bureaucracy, and it's going to fight for its own life. And also, ONDCP is part of the Executive Office of the President. Getting rid of the drug czar's office would mean, in a way, that the EOP would lose a little bit of its own power, and then whichever cabinet agency absorbed ONDCP's functions, staff, and budget -- probably Justice -- would gain that power. That is, head of that agency, the Attorney General, would gain that power. That's just not how Washington works.

Bottom line, I think that ONDCP will persist, in some form, just not the ONDCP we had under the treatment advocate, tobacco addict, and recovering alcoholic Michael Botticelli. Michael Botticelli embraced harm reduction, promoted broader availability of the overdose cure Naloxone, spoke out against stigma, and advocated for treatment on demand, including medically assisted treatment. Michael Botticelli is missed.

Well folks, that's it for this week. Thank you for joining us. You have been listening to Century Of Lies. We're a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org. Drug Truth Network is on Facebook, please give its page a like. Drug War Facts is on Facebook too, give it a like and share it with friends. You can follow me on Twitter, I'm @DougMcVay and of course also @DrugPolicyFacts.

We'll be back next week with thirty minutes of news and information about the drug war and this Century Of Lies. For now, for the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay saying so long. So long!

For the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay asking you to examine our policy of drug prohibition: the century of lies. Drug Truth Network programs archived at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.