Thanks for nothing, DEA. Fifty years later, drugs are deadlier and more abundant than ever

The Drug Enforcement Administration has spent half a century worsening public health. It should be abolished

By Troy Farah

Science & Health Editor

Published July 9, 2023 1:59PM (EDT)

Members of the Drug Enforcement Administration raided two homes side-by-side, in an assumed illegal marijuana operation, on January 31, 2019 in Commerce City, Colorado. (RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Members of the Drug Enforcement Administration raided two homes side-by-side, in an assumed illegal marijuana operation, on January 31, 2019 in Commerce City, Colorado. (RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

As of this week, the United States has "enjoyed" half a century under the thumb of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), a wing of the Department of Justice established in 1973 by former President Richard Nixon. Instead of truly addressing the deepening drug problem in the U.S., the DEA has worsened public health outcomes related to drug use, promoted racially stigmatizing policies, stomped on civil liberties and burned stacks of cash in a vain effort to control the uncontrollable.

There's no denying the drug situation in the U.S. is dire. Approximately 1 million people have died of overdoses since 1999, many of these deaths driven by powerful opioids like illicit fentanyl and its many analogs. Nonetheless, polydrug use — the mixing of multiple substances — is a far more lethal combination than any drug on its own, as well as the true underbelly of this drug crisis disaster.

Despite decades of increased funding, more seizures and more policing, the DEA cannot seem to make a dent in this crisis. The body count from overdoses continues to rise, and there's no end to the flow of drugs into the U.S.

In fact, the situation seems to be intensifying, given that many drug mixtures sold as "heroin" now include the animal tranquilizer xylazine, which can incapacitate users for up to eight hours and generate horrific skin lesions. Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates a 276% increase in overdose deaths in which xylazine was detected between January 2019 and June 2022.

While xylazine has been on the radar of some drug policy experts for years, the DEA only recently seemed to notice this growing issue. Its response has been more of the same policing tactics that, regardless of the substance, have gotten us nowhere in the last five decades.

With few exceptions, every illicit drug sold on the streets has medical value in the right context.

In fairness, the agency doesn't really have the necessary tools available to accomplish tackling the overdose crisis. Addiction and chaotic drug use are inherently health issues. Trying to wedge them under the purview of law enforcement is thus a fool's errand. (The same goes for policing abortion and gender-affirming health care.) In light of the stark failures of the drug war, it's clearly time to abolish the DEA and invest in public health strategies that are actually effective.

Disrupting the narcotics supply with guns drawn, drug-sniffing dogs snarling and helicopters circling doesn't incentivize anyone to stop using drugs. But it does generate chaos that increases the risk of death, to say nothing of the civilians who regularly die in botched drug raids. None of this will ever discourage someone with a serious drug problem to stop using — just like it would be absurd to address rising diabetes and obesity cases by jailing people who artificially spike their blood sugar.

The kernel of the DEA's authority rests on the puritanical view that some drugs are "good," while others are "bad." Not only is this a deeply moralistic view, but also it's an unscientific one. With few exceptions, every illicit drug sold on the streets has medical value in the right context. Cocaine is useful as a topical anesthetic in nasal surgeries; methamphetamine is prescribed for narcolepsy, ADHD and extreme obesity; and fentanyl is used daily in hospitals across the country for surgery and cancer pain. It's not the chemicals themselves that are the issue, but rather how they're applied.

This bizarre logic doesn't only lack scientific rigor: It has real-world implications for how the DEA operates and who it operates against.

The DEA was inaugurated not long after the passage of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), a contradictory piece of legislation that categorizes drugs into "schedules" based on their perceived harms and medical use. Heroin is Schedule 1, which indicates it has a high level of "abuse potential" and zero medical value. Morphine, the naturally-occurring painkiller widely used in hospitals, is Schedule 2, because although it can be as addictive and deadly as heroin, it's seen as having some medical value under a doctor's guidance.

Psychedelics like MDMA (sometimes called ecstasy or molly) and psilocybin mushrooms are all Schedule 1, despite a growing body of research that these drugs have broad therapeutic value. Marijuana, too, is Schedule 1 despite the fact that THC, the active ingredient in cannabis, has been a prescription drug, approved by the Food and Drug Administration, since the 1980s.

Tobacco and alcohol, two of the most destructive and deadly drugs on the planet, are not scheduled — at all. Despite millions of annual deaths attributed to smoking and drinking — tobacco alone kills 8 million people globally every year, according to the World Health Organization — these drugs don't garner the same scrutiny as others. This is one example of how the CSA, the backbone of the DEA's authority, is riddled with logical errors, arbitrary exclusions and poor quantification of perceived harms.

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This bizarre logic doesn't only lack scientific rigor: It has real-world implications for how the DEA operates and who it operates against. Not only does this have a trickle-down effect on local police departments by loading their priorities to focus on drugs at the expense of preventing other crimes and arming them with military-grade equipment, but also these policies have been largely exported across the planet, creating global health inequities that target some groups of people above others.

Low-income neighborhoods and communities of color have long been disproportionately targeted by what Nixon dubbed the "War on Drugs." Speaking with journalist Dan Baum in 1994, John Ehrlichman, the Watergate co-conspirator who served as one of Nixon's key drug war architects, left nothing to the imagination as to why this drug policy was implemented:

"The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and Black people. You understand what I'm saying? We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."

Civil rights attorney and author Michelle Alexander describes this brutal campaign that has relished in racial profiling and mass incarceration as "the New Jim Crow," writing in her book of the same title that "African Americans are not significantly more likely to use or sell prohibited drugs than whites, but they are made criminals at drastically higher rates for precisely the same conduct."

The sentencing disparities for crack cocaine versus powdered cocaine are only one example of this bias in action. Nkechi Taifa, president of the social justice advocacy firm the Taifa Group, described the situation succinctly writing for the Brennan Center for Justice:

"Since the late 1980s, a combination of federal law enforcement policies, prosecutorial practices and legislation resulted in Black people being disproportionately arrested, convicted and imprisoned for possession and distribution of crack cocaine. Five grams of crack cocaine — the weight of a couple packs of sugar — was, for sentencing purposes, deemed the equivalent of 500 grams of powder cocaine; both resulted in the same five-year sentence. Although household surveys from the National Institute for Drug Abuse have revealed larger numbers of documented white crack cocaine users, the overwhelming number of arrests nonetheless came from Black communities who were disproportionately impacted by the facially neutral, yet illogically harsh, crack penalties."

This gulf was slightly addressed by the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, but the law was still riddled with disparities, simply reducing the ratio of punishment from 100:1 to 18:1. The American Civil Liberties Union described this as a "compromise" that "reflects outdated and discredited assumptions about crack cocaine. Because crack and powder cocaine are two forms of the same drug, there should not be any disparity in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine offenses — the only truly fair ratio is 1:1."

The law wasn't even retroactively applied until the 2018 First Step Act was passed, which means this reform didn't do much to help anyone arrested for crack cocaine before 2010.

Despite similar drug policy reforms, especially the legalization of cannabis and psychedelics in some states, echoes of Nixon-era drug war strategies are creeping back up across the country, even in states controlled by Democrats. This includes drug homicide laws, in which individuals who sell or share drugs with someone who dies from them, are charged with murder. Even "progressive" Colorado recently adopted such a law, though Wyoming and Utah rejected similar bills.

The most effective way to address a rotten system is to eradicate it, not attempt to reform it.

While the DEA isn't responsible for sentencing, it is responsible for enforcing these disparities. The most effective way to address a rotten system is to eradicate it, not attempt to reform it. We know from decades of experience that criminalization really never stops certain activities; it merely facilitates underground markets that are far more dangerous. In other words, the drug war amplifies the hazards of drugs. One of these cause-and-effect relationships is known as the Iron Law of Prohibition, which posits that when psychoactive substances are prohibited, they will become more potent and thus easier to smuggle due to their lesser volume. Fentanyl, for example, is potent in low dosages, making it much easier to transport across borders than heroin or opium, which is why we will likely never be rid of it.

The Iron Law can also be demonstrated in the proliferation of moonshine over beer and wine during nationwide alcohol prohibition more than a century ago. This "experiment" in trying to ban booze is largely judged by historians and drug policy experts as an abject failure, especially given its repeal in 1933. But it doesn't matter what drug it is — the Iron Law will still incentivize more potent narcotics in the face of stricter penalties.

There's good evidence to suggest that the DEA both understands this dynamic and is aware of its own impotence against drug cartels. Its leadership knows it cannot hope to unravel underground markets with more of the same badge and gun strategies. In a 2000 interview with Frontline, Robert Stutman said, "We, as a nation, should have learned the lesson a long time ago that you cannot depend on law enforcement to solve the [drug] problem." The retired special agent for the DEA added that "interdiction strategies, of all of the strategies, is the most foolhardy because it literally takes money and throws it against the wind."

"We, as a nation, should have learned the lesson a long time ago that you cannot depend on law enforcement to solve the [drug] problem."

What Stutman didn't mention is that it would, in fact, be antithetical to the DEA's own interests of self-preservation to win the drug war — if victory were even a possibility. With more than $1 trillion spent on the drug war since 1971, and the DEA's ever-increasing budget, currently some $3.28 billion per year, there's a lot of cash at stake. Winning would mean the DEA would be out of a job.

Victory would also mean less opportunity for the DEA to skim off millions of dollars via drug money laundering schemes, such as in 2015, when a Justice Department report revealed that DEA agents were attending lavish sex parties funded by Colombian drug cartels. José Irizarry, a disgraced former DEA agent now serving a 12-year federal prison sentence after confessing to involvement in the scheme, told the Associated Press (AP) last year that DEA agents are well aware they cannot make a dent in the drug trade.

"The drug war is a game," Irizarry told the AP. "It was a very fun game that we were playing."

In the fallout of the scandal, the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General began an external probe into the agency in 2021, and it is currently scrutinizing whether DEA director Anne Milgram improperly awarded $4.7 million in no-bid contracts to hire past associates.

This barely scratches the surface of scandals at the DEA, including the disastrous Operation Fast and Furious, in which guns were sold to straw purchasers in an attempt to track them to Mexican drug cartel leaders. Unsurprisingly, the agencies lost track of the weapons, many of which were eventually used in violent crimes. Also, for 15 years, the DEA violated the Constitution via warrantless spying on the phone calls of domestic citizens. It was only after Reuters and the New York Times revealed this program that it was stopped in late 2013. The agency regularly conducts wide-scale, unconstitutional dragnets, such as building a national network of license plate scanners to spy on drivers.

"The drug war is a game. It was a very fun game that we were playing."

But these sorts of scandals only scratch the surface of the violence that the DEA has left in its wake. It rarely, if ever, takes responsibility when its intelligence operations result in the deaths of dozens, or even hundreds, of people. For example, a joint investigation by ProPublica and National Geographic examined the DEA's outsized role in a 2011 massacre in Allende, Mexico. The agency's shoddy handling of intelligence is likely what led to cartels murdering an estimated 300 people in the small ranching town near the U.S.-Mexico border.

These incidents, which are hardly anomalies or scandals in the distant past, amount to the broader "collateral damage" that occurs when coercing other countries to join us in our drug war — or risk having armed DEA agents on their doorsteps. Horace Bartilow of the University of Kentucky and Kihong Eom of Kyungpook National University wrote in Foreign Policy Analysis in 2009 that "the DEA has often encouraged Latin American governments to militarize the drug war, consequently creating an environment in which the drug trade and the accompanying violence and human rights violations continue to increase."

The DEA's use of violence and fear, its tactical disruption of communities, its mishandling of budgeting — all in a fruitless attempt to wage a war its leadership knows is unwinnable — do not depict a bureau that is competent or effective. Half a century later, we have the worst drug crisis in American history, and the primary organization tasked with handling it is instead squandering funds better spent on harm reduction while protecting systemic inequality.

Is the alternative to a corrupt, useless organization like the DEA to let illicitly-manufactured drugs swamp our communities? Of course not. This is a false dichotomy. Public health experts advocate for a public health-centered approach incorporating addiction treatment on demand, which must be voluntary, and broad access to addiction medications like buprenorphine and methadone is critical. Harm reduction services, which run the gamut from syringe access to naloxone distribution to supervised consumption, are all important stop gaps to preventing death.

None of these strategies will totally eliminate drug use in the U.S. — but this isn't possible in the first place. If the level of policing we have now could stop drug use, it would have made an impact already. When every metric is trending in the opposite direction, it's time to admit that the immense focus on supply instead of demand isn't helping.

If the level of policing we have now could stop drug use, it would have made an impact already.

In fact, it's making things worse, quite like putting out fires with gasoline. We know there's strong evidence to suggest that drug busts actually increase the risk of fatal overdose rather than decreasing them, and it's far from a fringe belief to advocate for alternative approaches. Last month, a group of United Nations experts appointed by the Human Rights Council called for an end to the War on Drugs, arguing that this "conflict" doesn't address drugs, but rather targets people.

"The international community must replace punishment with support and promote policies that respect, protect and fulfill the rights of all," the policy experts said in a statement. "We urge member states and international bodies to supersede their current drug policies with ones grounded in the principles of the application of a comprehensive, restorative and reintegrative justice approach. Effective, community-based, inclusive and preventive measures are equally important."

It's hardly the first time members of the U.N. have made such policy proposals. Last year, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres urged the adoption of "science-based treatment and support services for drug users [treating] them as victims who need treatment rather than punishment, discrimination and stigma."

Bodily autonomy doesn't only apply to reproductive freedom, the right to identify as one pleases or access to clean air and water. It also includes what chemicals you put inside your body. In 2016, at the 30th Special Session of the General Assembly on the World Drug Problem, Sanho Tree, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies who directs its drug policy project, made it clear how the Drug War is a human rights violation:

We're going to look back someday — or at least the next generation will look back — and ask why did you ever go around incarcerating human beings for what they do to their own bodies? It's a profoundly absurd concept. Where in the Constitution of the United States does it say the government has the right to kick down your bedroom door and throw you into prison for something that you do with your own body, absent harm to anyone else?

There's a sovereignty of the corpus. Your body belongs to you. You were born a free and independent human being. You're not a subject of a king. You're not property of a state. And what you choose to do with your lungs, with your veins, with your brain, with your mouth, with your stomach or any other orifice, either recreationally, sexually or anything else, absent harm to others, should be your own business. Because if you don't own your body, what do you own?

At nearly every turn, the DEA violates these basic principles of sovereignty. If you add up the duration of every major war in U.S. history, from the Revolutionary War to the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, there are roughly 64 years of armed conflict over more than two centuries of American history. The War on Drugs is now 50 years old — and there's no end in sight. It's finally time to admit that it cannot be won.

By Troy Farah

Troy Farah is Salon's science and health editor specializing in drug policy and pandemics.

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