The Defund the Police Movement is Coming for the DEA

Critics say the Drug Enforcement Administration has fueled mass incarceration and is a “100 percent failure” at curbing drug trafficking.
Drug Enforcement Administration
Drug and police reform advocates say the Drug Enforcement Administration is a failure. Photo by RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images
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Sociology professor Alex S. Vitale is unambiguous in his assessment of the Drug Enforcement Administration and its stated mission of reducing drug trafficking in the United States: “They have been a 100 percent failure by any measure you can think of.”  Vitale, coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College and the author of The End of Policing, said the DEA hasn’t saved any lives, nor has it made drugs less available. 


“Anybody in America can get any kind of drugs they want,” Vitale said. 

The idea of defunding the police has become more mainstream in recent months, as part of the wider discussion around police brutality towards Black people stemming from the police killing of George Floyd. So far, the focus has largely been on local police forces rather than federal law enforcement agencies. But drug and police reform advocates believe dismantling the DEA, which they say is responsible for carrying out a discriminatory war on drugs, should be a priority. 

In June, a group of 76 former DEA agents put out a statement decrying systemic racism within the agency.

Last week, the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that advocates for ending prohibition, announced a framework for decriminalizing possession of all drugs federally. One of the major tenets of the policy is taking away the DEA’s authority to classify drugs under the Controlled Substance Act and giving that power instead to the National Institutes of Health. More broadly, the Drug Policy Alliance argues drugs fall under the jurisdiction of public health authorities rather than law enforcement. 

“The DEA has been completely ineffective at stemming the flow of the drugs. We have more people dying of accidental overdoses than we ever have before,” said Matt Sutton, spokesman for the Drug Policy Alliance. Preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows 2019 was the deadliest year in U.S. history for overdoses, with nearly 71,000 deaths. 


Even so, the DEA received more than $3.1 billion this fiscal year, and is on track to get even more money next year. 

In an email statement, Sean Mitchell, acting chief of DEA media relations, said the DEA is the “only U.S. law enforcement component that possesses the authorities and capabilities to disrupt and dismantle the most prolific drug trafficking organizations domestically and across the globe.” 

Mitchell said in 2019, the DEA’s actions denied cartels $5 billion in revenue. He said the DEA “will always follow the science and entities such as the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) (and) continue to research many drugs for medical efficacy” and that the administration does not pursue individual drug users. 

Although the DEA’s goal is to target high-level drug trafficking in the U.S. and disrupt the drug supply abroad, recent developments show its powers can extend beyond that. 

Following nationwide protests in reaction to the killing of Floyd, the Department of Justice authorized the DEA to to “enforce any federal crime committed as a result of protests over the death of George Floyd,” according to a memorandum obtained by Buzzfeed News. 

Under the new powers, DEA special agents were allowed to “conduct covert surveillance” and share that information with federal, state, and local authorities. 


Scott Roberts, senior director of criminal justice campaigns at Color Of Change, a nonprofit civil rights organization, said the memo shows how easily federal agencies can be authorized to go beyond their original mandate for political reasons. 

“Now we’re seeing the types of surveillance tools that were built and designed to theoretically go after drug cartels… being used to surveil and trap protesters and frankly limit and encroach on people’s First Amendment rights.” 

Mitchell said the DEA’s powers during the civil unrest in June included establishing and maintaining perimeters, protecting federal property, and monitoring crowd movements to identify bad actors and criminal activity and that those authorities have expired and have not been extended.

Created under President Richard Nixon in 1973, the DEA was originally billed as a means of combating a drug abuse crisis in the United States. But its real purpose was criminalizing Black people through the war on drugs, Roberts said.

In a 1994 interview with journalist Dan Baum, published in Harper’s magazine, Nixon-era domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman admitted the war on drugs was a ruse to target Nixon’s political opponents. 

"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,” Ehrlichman told Baum. 


According to filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th, about the genesis of mass incarceration, the U.S prison population more than doubled, ballooning from 513,000 in 1980 to 1,179,200 in 1990, after Ronald Reagan was elected president and aggressively ramped up the war on drugs. 

About half of federal prisoners are incarcerated for drug crimes. In 2019, more than 75 percent of people convicted of federal drug crimes were non-white, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. 

“They did a great job with filling prisons with Black and brown folks and decimating our communities,” said Bonita ‘Bo’ Money, co-founder of the National Diversity and Inclusion Cannabis Alliance (NDICA), a group that advocates for equity in legal weed.

Roberts said conservative politicians pushed the narrative that Black communities were “hot beds for illicit drug use” and so pumped resources into over-policing Black neighbourhoods. 

“Black communities were positioned as the scapegoat,” he said, despite the fact that Black and white people use drugs at similar rates. 

Roberts said the DEA funnels millions of dollars into local police departments while teaming up with them for drug trafficking stings, which encourages them to enforce prohibition. 

He said local law enforcement teams also pick up on the DEA’s “militarized approach to drug enforcement”—such as SWAT teams. 

“A lot of the more frankly virulent approaches to policing like SWAT teams were born of the war on drugs,” Roberts said. 


Money’s organization NDICA is currently granting $2,700 to people leaving jail for cannabis crimes to help them transition back into society. 

She said instead of funding agencies like the DEA, which has a history of corruption scandals, money should go towards reparations for communities harmed by the war on drugs, especially job training. 

“We need more programs like that where we’re supporting folks who are getting out of prison that have been traumatized for spending 20, 30 years in prison for weed,” she said. 

Roberts said there’s reason to be hopeful that agencies like the DEA will face more scrutiny, particularly as attitudes around drugs change. 

Although cannabis is “the lowest hanging fruit,” he said 20 years ago it would have been unimaginable that so many states would be decriminalizing or selling weed. 

The opioid crisis, which has hit white communities in middle America hard, has also disrupted the narrative that drug addiction is a problem limited to poor Black communities, he added. 

“Hopefully we can get to a point where we’re investing more in public health solutions and less in institutions like the DEA. And maybe eventually we’ll realize that we don’t need it,” he said.

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