It’s Time to Dismantle the DEA

For nearly 50 years, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has fueled mass incarceration, wasted taxpayer money, abused its authority and blocked scientific research. 

It’s time for change.

DEA agent in training with gun.
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty

By Every Measure the DEA and its Drug War Have Failed

The DEA was established in 1973 ostensibly to consolidate drug enforcement activities into a “superagency” that would bring together federal drug enforcement resources. In the last 50 years, it’s been a tremendous waste of resources and left a wake of devastation in the United States and abroad. 

DEA personnel have repeatedly engaged in unlawful operations, spent lavishly, ignored civil rights, packed federal prisons, and still failed to make a significant impact on drug supply. Meanwhile, Congress has engaged in little scrutiny of the agency, its actions or its budget.

WASTING TAXPAYER FUNDS

The DEA is the central player in the failed war on drugs. When the DEA was created in 1973, it started with less than $75 million. In fiscal year 2020 U.S. taxpayers spent more than $3.1 billion on the DEA. President Trump asked for even more for fiscal year 2021 - a staggering $3.5 billion, with more than $520 million specifically for its international programs.

What has it done with all that money? 

It has facilitated the growth of paramilitary forces on U.S. soil, expanded surveillance, and embedded itself in communities throughout the U.S. and abroad. It has directly participated in domestic enforcement at the local level and even conducted its own research and public propaganda campaigns. 

Ten percent of its Special Agent and Intelligence Analysts are permanently stationed overseas conducting drug interdiction, including undercover operations, surveillance, money laundering, paying informants, and facilitating arrests. Internationally, the DEA-led drug war has contributed to increased violence in many countries, as well as political and economic instability. 

The DEA now has:

  • Over 10,000 employees in 23 “field divisions” 
  • 47 district offices
  • 111 “resident offices”
  • 58 “posts of duty”
  • 90 foreign offices in 67 countries

Its functions, however, are also performed by other federal agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), United States Postal Inspection Service, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Criminal Investigation unit, and the U.S. Coast Guard.

FUELING MASS INCARCERATION AND RACIAL DISPARITIES

More than 20,000 individuals were convicted of federal drug offenses in 2019. Most of those sentences included imprisonment for many years. The average sentence for those convicted of trafficking marijuana was 31 months in a federal prison. Sentences for methamphetamine trafficking average nearly 8 years, but many extend for decades. 

Half of those in federal prisons are serving sentences for drug crimes. Over 75 percent of those convicted of federal drug offenses in 2019 were non-white people. While people of all races use and sell drugs at equivalent rates, the DEA and the drug war have targeted communities of color, producing profoundly unequal outcomes across racial groups.

And the DEA’s influence does not end at the gates of federal prisons. Its support for local drug-war policing has helped grow the number of people in state prisons and jails from around 36,000 people in 1980 to nearly 375,000 in 2017. This is costing taxpayers billions for incarceration and far more in collateral consequences to individuals who face barriers to housing, employment, education, and public assistance. All of this is causing further harm to the broader economy.

ABUSING ITS AUTHORITY

At its inception the DEA was tasked with classifying drugs and establishing controls on them. Instead, it has ignored scientific evidence and blocked research into the medical benefits of certain drugs, including marijuana. It has also fostered a culture of sidestepping the Constitution and failing to protect human rights.  

Repeatedly the DEA has been found to have abused its authority. The agency has a history of human rights abuses, lavish payments to confidential informants, and surveillance of Americans with no suspected connection to illegal drug activities. 

Over the years the DEA has rarely been held accountable for its scandals and the misconduct of its agents. Some of those scandals in the past decade have included: 

Exorbitant Payments to Confidential Informants
A 2016 audit revealed the DEA paid 18,000 informants $237 million over five years. The informants operated with little oversight or review of the reliability of their information.

Bulk Collection of Phone Records
The DEA secretly and without explicit authority tracked billions of international phone calls made by U.S. residents for decades. The Justice Department Inspector General in 2019 raised numerous concerns about the DEA’s suspicionless surveillance of American’s phone records.

Tapping Phone Calls and Text Messages with Little Scrutiny
DEA agents went around federal courts and prosecutors to routinely get wiretap authorization from one local court. At one point this was the source of one-fifth of all U.S. wiretaps.

Lack of Supervision and Accountability of Agents
DEA agents reportedly received money, gifts and weapons from Colombian drug trade organizations. This included participating in parties with sex workers hired by these organizations. Most concerning is that DEA officials were not fully compliant with the Inspector General investigating the allegations.  

Gross Neglect in the Handling of an Improperly Detained Person
DEA agents detained 23-year-old student Daniel Chong, but then left him locked in a windowless cell with no food or water for five days. He drank his own urine to survive. The DEA eventually paid $4.1 million to settle a lawsuit. The most significant sanction for the personnel involved included a 7-day suspension.

Other incidents over the years have raised similar questions about the DEA’s practices, including:

For too long the DEA fostered a culture of ignoring the law and tolerated abuses of power. It has rarely been forced to account for the misconduct.    

LACK OF RESULTS

The DEA’s rogue practices have not only undermined the rule of law, they have also failed to deliver their intended result, cutting off the supply of drugs. Even as its operating budget has swelled and it sent a steady stream of people to prison, increasing violence and instability at home and abroad, the supply of drugs entering the United States has never significantly declined.

According to the DEA’s own “2019 National Drug Threat Assessment” the “opioid threat (controlled prescription drugs, synthetic opioids, and heroin) continues at ever-increasing epidemic levels, affecting large portions of the United States” and “The stimulant threat (methamphetamine and cocaine) is worsening and becoming more widespread.”

After billions of dollars spent on their futile drug war, drugs remain cheap, potent and widely available. 

A New Approach: Defund and Reinvest

For too long the DEA has abused its powers, misspent taxpayer funds, fueled mass incarceration and ignored civil rights. 

It’s time to dismantle and abolish the DEA. We need to pivot to a health-based approach to address addiction and improve social conditions that contribute to problematic drug use. 


Learn More - DPA reports

The Scandal-Ridden DEA: Everything You Need to Know (PDF)

The DEA: Four Decades of Impeding And Rejecting Science (PDF)