The Drug Policy Alliance, the nation’s leading organization working to end the war on drugs, has placed a mock “Help Wanted” ad in Roll Call seeking a new head of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to “prolong the failed war on drugs.” Primary areas of job responsibility include “Mass Incarceration,” “Police State Tactics,” “Obstruction of Science,” “Subverting Democracy” and “Undermining Human Rights.” The ad comes in the wake of numerous DEA scandals and DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart’s recent announcement she will resign sometime in May.
“Drug prohibition, like alcohol Prohibition, breeds crime, corruption, and violence – and creates a situation where law enforcement officers must risk their lives in a fight that can’t be won,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “It’s time to reform not just the DEA but broader US and global drug policy. The optimal drug policy would reduce the role of criminalization and the criminal justice system in drug control to the greatest extent possible, while protecting public safety and health.”
The DEA has existed for more than forty years but little attention has been given to the role the agency has played in fueling mass incarceration, racial disparities, the surveillance state, and other drug war problems. Congress has rarely scrutinized the agency, its actions or its budget, instead showing remarkable deference to the DEA’s administrators. That has started to change recently, and Leonhart’s departure is seen as an opportunity to appoint someone who will overhaul the agency and support reform.
The Drug Policy Alliance recently released a new issue brief, The Scandal-Ridden DEA: Everything You Need to Know. The brief covers numerous DEA scandals, including the massacre of civilians in Honduras, the inappropriate use of NSA resources to spy on US citizens and the use of fabricated evidence to cover it up, the warrantless tracking of billions of US phone calls, and the misuse of confidential informants.
The brief notes that the traditional US drug policy goal of using undercover work, arrests, prosecutions, incarceration, interdiction and source-country eradication to try to make America “drug-free” has failed to substantially reduce drug use or drug-related harms. It instead has created problems of its own – broken families, increased poverty, racial disparities, wasted tax dollars, prison overcrowding and eroded civil liberties.
The case has been made for eliminating the DEA with its regulatory and scheduling functions shifted to a health agency and its agents and other resources shifted to various Justice Department organized crime task forces. Three presidential administrations have conducted reviews of whether it would be more efficient and better for public safety to merge the DEA with the FBI (Carter, Reagan, and Clinton), but Congress has never seriously explored the issue.
Even as US states, Congress, and the Obama Administration move forward with marijuana legalization, sentencing reform, and other drug policy reforms, the DEA has fought hard to preserve the failed policies of the past. Last year, Leonhart publicly rebuked President Obama for saying that marijuana is as safe as alcohol, told members of Congress that the DEA will continue to go after marijuana even in states where it is legal despite DOJ guidance stating otherwise, and spoke out against bipartisan drug sentencing reform in Congress that the Obama administration is supporting.
Last May, the DEA created a political firestorm when it seized seeds bound for a Kentucky hemp research program that was approved by Congress. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) called the incident “an outrage,” the Kentucky Agriculture Department sued the DEA, and the agency was forced to back down.
The DEA also has a long history of obstructing scientific research and refusing to acknowledge established science, as chronicled in a report by DPA and MAPS last year, The DEA: Four Decades of Impeding and Rejecting Science. DEA administrators, including Leonhart, have on several occasions ignored research and overruled the DEA’s own administrative law judges on the medical uses of marijuana and MDMA. In a bizarre 2012 debate with members of Congress Leonhart refused repeatedly to acknowledge that marijuana is safer than cocaine and heroin.
In a recent report the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General found that the DEA withheld information and obstructed investigations. In a hearing last week senators grilled the DEA for failing to provide information and answer basic questions. “It’s been now eight months – I still don’t have a response from DEA to these questions,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley said. “When we don’t get responses to our letters, that colors our view of the agency – particularly when we’rewriting about a constituent who suffered from a real lapse in process,” Senator Diane Feinstein said.
The Drug Policy Alliance is launching an online campaign to raise awareness of the damage the agency is causing, releasing a series of reports on the agency’s failure and malfeasance, and working with members of Congress to cut the agency’s budget and reduce its power.
Last year Congress passed a spending limitation amendment prohibiting the DEA from undermining state marijuana laws. It was signed into law by President Obama, but expires later this year. The US House also approved two amendments prohibiting the DEA from interfering with state hemp laws. An amendment to shift $5 million from the agency to a rape kit testing program passed overwhelmingly. Numerous hearings have already been held this year scrutinizing the agency. Reformers say more amendments, bills, and hearings are on the way.
“Our fight is not with DEA agents but with their leaders who have profoundly politicized the agency and opposed sensible reforms,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “As states legalize marijuana, reform sentencing, and treat drug use more as a health issue and less as a criminal justice issue theDEA must change with the times.”