As the DEA Swarms US Cities, Its Abolition Should Be Prioritized

August 10, 2020

As the President sends Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents to Chicago and other cities to conduct local law enforcement having nothing to do with drugs, Congress is advancing, within omnibus legislation, an appropriations bill that would increase DEA funding with essentially no strings attached. Before that package gets sent to the White House, legislators should take a closer look at the DEA and its history of abusing its power.

For 50 years, administrations of both parties have been telling us that drugs are an emergencythat we need to spend more money and give agents more tools and broader powers, all in a futile attempt to stop the flow of drugs. And in response, the federal agency and the drug war have grown exponentially.

When the DEA was created in 1973, its budget was less than $75 million. Today, the DEA has over 10,000 employees and a budget totaling more than $3.1 billion. It is the largest drug enforcement agency in the world, maintaining physical offices and agents stationed not only domestically throughout the United States, but also abroad. US taxpayers finance 90 foreign offices in 67 countries, where agents continually wage oftensecretive operations.

Imagine how the nation’s founders would have felt about federal drug enforcement officers searching homes and arresting people, day after day, on US soil. Now, imagine how they would feel about those officers snatching protesters from the streetsin some cases without even probable causefor allegations having nothing to do with the agency’s stated mission.

For Americans of all political persuasions, it should be terrifying: a national police force with minimal restraint on its powers. For legislators with oversight responsibilities, it should raise major red flags and an obligation to investigate.

For too long, the agency has operated without meaningful oversight and has developed a culture of lawlessness.

On May 31, the Attorney General “temporarily” authorized the diversion of DEA personnel and equipment for law enforcement activities unrelated to drugs. To do so, the Department of Justice relied on a section of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 that lays out the powers of DEA personnel. Over the years, the Department’s Office of Legal Counsel has taken conflicting positions on whether DEA agents can lawfully engage in non-drug-related policing, and the legislative history remains murky at best.

But what is clear is that for too long, the agency has operated without meaningful oversight and has developed a culture of lawlessness. Even before the recent protests, the DEA repeatedly stretched its mandate and misused its authority. The DEA has a history of human rights abuses, poorly tracked payments to informants, and misuse of subpoena power and surveillance capabilities.

Use of the DEA for general policing in Chicago, New York, Portland and other US cities pulls back the curtain on what the DEA has become: a federal, overfunded and overmilitarized police force. A behemoth propped up by the pretense that drug use can be stomped out by aggressive policing methods and harsh penalties.

Five decades after President Nixon’s launch of the modern drug war and the creation of that federal force, it has failed to achieve the intended results. There has been no decline in illicit drug supply, nor in demand. Instead, the US has led the world in incarceration, widened racial disparities, and poured billions of dollars down the drain.

This mindless routine of drug-war funding needs to be stopped. To start, we should get rid of the DEA, transfer its drug classification authority to the National Institutes of Health and decriminalize personal-use quantities of controlled substances. Legislation we proposed, the Drug Policy Reform Act, would do that and make a host of other changes in federal law to begin repairing the harms of the drug war.

The proposal to eliminate unnecessary law enforcement agencies is not without precedent in Congress. In past years Congressman James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, repeatedly introduced legislation to eliminate the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), stating that it would be “one measure we can take to reduce spending, redundancy, and practice responsible governance.”

A fair and objective analysis of the DEA renders the same conclusionthat it is duplicative, as well as abusiveand the practice of responsible governance requires leadership to reign in and ultimately shut down this bloated and unnecessary federal agency.

It’s time for an honest look at the blank check we write for the drug war every year. It’s time for meaningful hearings on how drug decriminalization has been successful in other nations and would work here.


The author’s employer, the Drug Policy Alliance, has previously provided a restricted grant to The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.

Photograph of a DEA agent conducting a pre-flight check at a National Guard base by Master Sgt. Kendra M. Owen/Public Domain.

Grey Gardner

Grey is a staff attorney for the Drug Policy Alliance, focused on criminal justice reform policy and litigation. Grey has a diverse background in criminal defense litigation, legislative analysis and political advocacy. He served as a trial attorney at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, the Legal Aid Society in New York City, and in solo practice, and has also worked in legislative and political roles for several members of Congress and for Goodwill Industries International.

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