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New Drug Agency Chief To Revive Take-Back Program

"Probably the most shocking thing to me was the number of people that die every day in the United States from a drug overdose. I knew there was a problem. I knew it was big. I didn't know it was 120 people a day," acting DEA Chief Chuck Rosenberg said in his first interview since taking over at the agency.

When Chuck Rosenberg took the top job at the Drug Enforcement Administration two months ago, the longtime prosecutor had a reputation as "Mister Fix It."

The DEA has had a rough time lately — including scandals like agents at sex parties financed by drug cartels. He's now going to be keenly interested in the whereabouts of Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, who recently escaped from prison.

But there was something else that has really taken Rosenberg's breath away these first few months on the job: drug overdose.

"Probably the most shocking thing to me was the number of people that die every day in the United States from a drug overdose. I knew there was a problem. I knew it was big. I didn't know it was 120 people a day," he said in his first interview since taking over at the agency.

Rosenberg says heroin and opiates are mostly to blame, and the damage is reaching people in every demographic.

"We're losing 43,000 people each year and that's more than the number of people who die in a car accident or who die from firearms," he said.

Nine weeks into his new role as acting administrator at the DEA, Rosenberg is trying to focus his workforce on the biggest threats. The agency has special agents and employees stationed all over the world — 67 different countries.

"We're attacking supply abroad," he said. But also "we're attacking demand domestically. I think one without the other is foolish."

Rosenberg says he's soon going to be delivering a message to the American people — in the form of a drug take back program that has been dormant.

"We need you to clean out your medicine cabinet; we need you to give us the stuff in your medicine cabinet that can hurt you or your loved ones," he said. "More to come but we're going to revive that program and we're going to do it in every state in the country."

The acting DEA chief has already visited nine field offices, and late last week more than 100 DEA employees piled into an auditorium at headquarters to hear their new leader for the first time.

They soon found out that despite all his titles — former U.S. attorney, former Justice and FBI official — Rosenberg is not a formal guy. He insists that employees call him Chuck ("because that's actually my name"), which some joke will be a tough adjustment. He told workers he wanted them to be kind, to be fair and to be just.

"If you're here I know two things about you. At least I think I know two things about you: No. 1, you're not here for the money, OK? If you're here for the money I got news for you, or a subpoena, I guess. And you're here to do justice," he said. He added that means admitting mistakes, and fixing them.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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