A New Day for the D.E.A.
Issue #
183
Deborah Small
Director
Drug Enforcement Administration

I accept the assignment to become head of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). I propose the following new mission for the agency:

DEA = Dare to Explore Alternatives

I think it’s fair to say our drug enforcement policies fit the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result.

My goal as DEA administrator is to break the cycle of agency dependency on supply-side approaches emphasizing interdiction, arrest, conviction and incarceration as the principal way to win the “war on drugs.” I recommend the DEA explore alternative drug policies and practices in the following three areas:

Reform Marijuana Policy

A. Reschedule Marijuana and Allow State Experimentation

It’s time the DEA acknowledged the shift in public opinion regarding the appropriateness of punishing people for possessing and using marijuana — 16 states and the District of Columbia have approved access to marijuana for medical use. Last November voters in Washington and Colorado approved initiatives authorizing their states to tax and regulate marijuana cultivation and distribution to adults for recreational use. Recent polls have affirmed this is not just a regional shift — nationally, more than 50 percent of Americans 40 years and younger believe marijuana should be legally regulated for adult use, more than two thirds of Americans of all ages support access to medical marijuana. Yet federal policy still considers marijuana a dangerous drug, deserving of Schedule 1 status, meaning it has no legitimate use — more dangerous than cocaine, which is classified Schedule 2. The policy defies logic and experience, which is why almost one-third of states have enacted laws directly in defiance. What should a transformational administration do?

Dare to explore alternatives!

I recommend the DEA support the request by the governors of Washington, Rhode Island and Vermont that the federal government reschedule marijuana consistent with available science and medical research.

President Obama recently affirmed that pursuing marijuana users is not a priority of federal law enforcement; as he correctly noted, “we have bigger fish to fry.” It makes sense for the DEA and Justice Department to allow officials to develop and implement effective regulatory schemes in states that have approved access to marijuana. A recent economic study projects the development of a legal supply of domestically grown cannabis in the United States has the potential to dramatically reduce the profits derived by Mexican drug cartels — for instance, the Sinaloa cartel could lose about $1 billion/year if it had to compete with marijuana grown in Washington or Colorado. Few U.S. drug policies have significantly affected the profitability of the illicit drug trade; the DEA should encourage states to be “laboratories for experimentation” by exploring alternative drug policies that can undermine the power and profits of drug trafficking organizations is something the DEA should endorse.

B. Reduce Marijuana Arrests

Nationally, arrests for marijuana offenses account for nearly half of all drug arrests by state and local law enforcement, often made possible by federal funding. African-American and Latino youth are disproportionately targeted for drug law enforcement, and marijuana arrests are no exception. This racially biased law enforcement undermines the Obama administration’s goal of increasing high school retention rates and improving educational outcomes, particularly for black and Latino youth. Under my direction, the DEA will make receipt of federal funding for local law enforcement contingent on demonstrating elimination of racial, gender and ethnic and age disparities in drug law enforcement as well as reducing arrests for marijuana offenses.

Reduce Prescription Drug Abuse

While the DEA has focused primarily on fighting illicit drug use, prescription drug abuse has reached epidemic proportions. In recent years more people have died from prescription drug overdoses than all the illicit drugs combined. For millions of Americans with inadequate or no health insurance, pharmaceuticals are marketed as a relatively cheap way to deal with various health challenges. Painkillers and medications that treat attention deficit disorders have become common drugs of abuse. So far the DEA has relied on strategies designed to reduce diversion, but an unintended consequence of this approach has been shortages of medication for legitimate patients with immediate needs.

The DEA will initiate a public education campaign about the dangers of prescription drug abuse — Pills Can Kill. The campaign will target populations with heightened vulnerability to prescription drug abuse including students, shift workers, military veterans and people with mental health disorders. I recommend the DEA collect data from states with medical marijuana programs to assess the efficacy of cannabis for pain management. Evidence suggests marijuana may provide a viable alternative to oxycodone and other pharmaceutical opioids for managing acute and/or chronic pain.

Mitigate the international impact of U.S. drug law enforcement

Nowhere have the consequences of drug war militarization been felt more acutely than in Mexico. Over the past six years, more than 60,000 men, women and children have lost their lives in Mexico’s bloody drug war as cartels battle the government and each other for access to the lucrative U.S. drug market. Often they’re killing each other with guns that come from the United States, purchased with money laundered by U.S. banks.

Our neighbors to the south have become disillusioned with the war on drugs. Recently leaders from Mexico, Honduras, Belize, Costa Rica and Guatemala have called for reassessing the global drug prohibition regime that relies on punishment and exploring alternative approaches that will reduce the violence, sickness and death associated with the drug war. The DEA will endorse the call by Latin American leaders for a regional meeting of the Organizatio of American States to discuss drug policies followed by a U.N. General Assembly Special Session on drug prohibition no later than 2015. Together we will Dare to Explore Alternatives to punitive drug prohibition.


Deborah Peterson Small is the executive director of Break the Chains, a public policy research and advocacy organization committed to addressing the disproportionate impact of punitive drug policies on poor communities of color.