DEA chief Chuck Rosenberg on America's "growing" opioid epidemic

A groundbreaking new report calls substance abuse one of America’s most pressing public health problems. And according to Chuck Rosenberg, acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, the problem is “growing fast.”

Rosenberg blames it on the excess of prescription pills. According to him, a “pill problem” ultimately becomes a “heroin and opioid problem.”

“We know that 4 out of 5 new heroin users started on prescription pills, and most of the people who start on prescription pills get them out of someone’s medicine cabinet, get it ‘legitimately.’”

According to the surgeon general’s first report dedicated to addiction, 12.5 million Americans abused prescription painkillers in the last year. On an average day in the U.S., more than 650,000 opioid prescriptions are dispensed, 580 people start using heroin, and 78 people die from opioid-related overdose – more than from car accidents or gun violence.  

“There’s plenty of blame to go around,” Rosenberg said, referencing both the over-prescription of painkillers by doctors and their illicit sale on the street. 

“We are 5 percent of the world’s population, we consume in one way or another 99 percent of the world’s hydrocodone. That’s crazy, that’s crazy.”

But the DEA has been blamed for being part of the problem. Back in July, Sen. Richard Durbin ripped the agency at a Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing, saying: “The Drug Enforcement Agency has decided to floor America with opioid pills, far beyond any medical purpose.”

Rosenberg said he didn’t think that characterization was “accurate,” and has since met with Durbin and his colleagues to clear “some misunderstandings.”

But the DEA has the power to set the limit for the manufacture of pills. In 2014, an estimated 14 billion opioids were dispensed.

“That seems too high,” co-host Norah O’Donnell said. 

“It’s very high, but we don’t regulate the practice of medicine. We do allocate the amount that folks can manufacture,” Rosenberg responded.

“But why not bring down that amount?” O’Donnell asked.

Rosenberg said the DEA has brought the number down, but that there is still “plenty of capacity.”

“The DEA is really good at supply reduction. We’re a traditional law enforcement. We attack that unholy alliance between international cartels and violent street gangs,” Rosenberg said. 

But he said that’s not enough, and that the issue must be tackled in “other ways,” especially in reducing demand.

“We’re not going to enforce or prosecute [ourselves] out of this mess, so we have to do demand reduction,” Rosenberg said.

 “How do you reduce the demand?” co-host Charlie Rose asked. 

“Public education is part of it, but we’ve got to teach, we’ve got to rehabilitate, we’ve got to treat,” Rosenberg said. One example of the DEA’s efforts is its collaboration with Discovery Education, to bring a STEM-based curriculum to schools to teach the science of opioid addiction and open up conversations for students, teachers and parents. 

Then there’s National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day – an opportunity for people to dispose of unwanted pills anonymously, “no questions asked.”

“So we did it twice in the past year. Here’s a big number. We took in 1.6 million pounds of unwanted and expired drugs,” Rosenberg said. “Now by some estimates, only about 10 percent of what we get on take-back are opioids. That’s still 160,000 pounds of opioids out of medicine cabinets and off the streets. So this is a good thing.”

Rosenberg touted the work of the DEA, but said there is still “a lot of help to be had.”

“The men and women of DEA are amazing. They have a really hard job, they have a dangerous job. But we need help,” Rosenberg said, calling on doctors, pharmacies, manufacturers, and Congress.