It’s Time for the DEA to Go Away… For Good

The federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was formed less than half a century ago, in 1973. Not that long ago in the grand scheme of things, but long enough for them to have drained over a trillion dollars from the taxpayers with only a losing record in their War on Drugs to show for it. Despite around the clock vigilance from the DEA, the amount of truly dangerous drugs like heroin and methamphetamines flooding the streets of America continues to rise, yet so does the annual budget allotted to this failing agency.

The 2019 Budget Proposal put out by the White House earlier this year demands $2.2 Billion in funding for the DEA, a $400 Million increase over 2017. While the federal government is finally paying attention to our country’s community killing opioid crisis, that plan of attack has its own separate funding so all that cash is for the DEA to use at its own discretion.

What does that mean, exactly? Well, agency officials are bragging to anyone who will listen that they made 20% more cannabis-related arrests in 2018 than they did the year prior.

(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Their efforts have contributed directly to the overcrowding of our prisons – the Federal Bureau of Prisons reports that they are operating at 140% of capacity. The sick part is, more than half of those inmates are doing time for low or mid-level drug offenses. More than 2/3rds of female prisoners are locked up over non-violent drug-related offenses.  

Meanwhile, the Center for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) reports that in that same time period, between 2017 and 2018, overdose deaths from synthetic opioids rose from 29,000 to 32,000. Way to keep America’s streets safe, Big Bro.


Since its inception under President Richard Nixon, the DEA has seen its budget and manpower swell year after year from a 1,500 person operation with a $75 million budget in the ’70s, to the multibillion-dollar behemoth it is today employing over 9,000 agents in countries all across the globe.

Tasked with enforcing “the controlled substances laws and regulations … and [bringing] to the criminal and civil justice system … organizations and principal members of organizations involved in the growing, manufacture, or distribution of controlled substances appearing in or destined for illicit traffic in the United States”  the agency has utterly failed their stated mission as the availability and potency of illicit drugs remains as high as ever, while wholesale prices (a leading indicator) remain low. All that their efforts have succeeded in doing is criminalizing millions of people for the use of drugs, impacting their lives forever.

Conservative lawmakers in Washington D.C. constantly complain about what they see as wasteful government spending. Republican presidential candidates trip over each other every four years or so trying to out-defund one another. Just this week, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) refused to vote to extend healthcare coverage to the surviving first responders from 9/11. His reason was that the government spends too much and the only way he will approve more spending is if offsetting cuts are made elsewhere in the national budget. Well, bub, we can point you to a two billion dollar black hole in that budget that has metastasized over four decades into the cancer we see today. Defund the DEA and we could pay for a lot of important things.

Out here in the real world, where employees of businesses have to show proficiency in their trade to remain employed, companies are unable to keep their doors open if they cannot deliver results.

But the federal government doesn’t have to earn its money as you or I do, instead, they just take the money that you and I earn by way of taxes. While our roads and schools crumble, DEA funding rises, and the politicians responsible wag their crooked finger at us about wasteful spending.  


It should come as no surprise that the DEA maintains a mutual bond with Big Pharma, with the latter laying out massive contributions to those friendly with the former in exchange for keeping natural, plant-based, healing substances like cannabis, psilocybin, ketamine, and other alternative forms of medication taboo and highly illegal. Since the year 2000, the drug industry has hired dozens of former DEA and Justice Department officials, and countless more have left public service with the agency to pursue lucrative careers in lobbying and political consulting in the pharmaceutical sector.

We have witnessed this influence firsthand just in the past couple of years as the DEA fast-tracked a controversial cannabis-based epilepsy medication called Epidiolex and allowed it to reach the U.S. market even though its core ingredient is still a Schedule I drug on the Controlled Substances Act. Similarly, the DEA is absolutely muddying the debate on hemp-derived CBD. More than a half a year after hemp was removed from that same Controlled Substances Act, the feds still don’t know how to treat the non-intoxicating CBD compound found inside of it due, in large part, to misleading input from the DEA.

Corruption flows from the core of the agency with agents often entangled in bribery, drug use, reselling of illegally seized property, and in one case straight out of the Netflix hit series Narcos, agents were busted attending hooker and coke-fueled orgies organized by the cartel kingpins they were tasked with taking down.

On a more local level, the support that the agency has lent to local and state police departments has also encouraged abusive police tactics including dangerous no-knock-raids and ethnic profiling of American citizens. It has weakened civil liberties through the expansion of warrantless surveillance and looked the other way during seizures of billions of dollars of private property. These actions have, of course, disproportionately targeted people of color, contributing to disparities in prison populations and collective trauma between communities.

And for what?

We argue that all of their efforts have only strengthened black markets, deepened racial divides in this country, and stunted progress on alternative medications and the well-being of hundreds of millions of Americans over the years.


So here is what we propose. Tear the DEA down to the ground. Uproot whatever withered stump remains and burn it to ashes. Whatever jurisdiction they now hold over the pharmaceutical industry gets shifted to a strengthened Food and Drug Administration and to the states themselves. All of their law enforcement duties either transfer to the FBI, to state and local authorities or get eliminated altogether. Whatever budgetary funds remain after this massive reassignment can be put toward wider access to life-saving drug treatment for those in need.

Going forward, federal drug enforcement should focus only on violent traffickers and major crime syndicates operating across international and state borders. All other cases should be left to the states.

Asking the police to win a “War on Drugs” is an impossible assignment for them. It’s like asking a factory worker to design the robot that will replace him – the incentive just isn’t there. Instead, societal investments in harm reduction, public health, and legalization strategies combined with a comprehensive economic development of poor and underserved communities could more effectively reduce the negative impacts of drugs on society without imprisoning more citizens than any other country on the planet.

Currently, the most dangerous aspect of most non-prescription drugs is getting caught with them. Every single pound of (insert preferred drug here) that gets seized by the DEA increases the premium on the price of that pound the next time. It is that risk margin that pays the bills for black market dealers and it all but vanishes the same day that 9,000 DEA agents get laid off.

Want to end the drug war?
Defund the drug warriors.
Abolish the DEA.

Post by Jack Riordan

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