War on Drugs

After 50 Years, the DEA Is Still Losing the War on Drugs

For five decades, the agency has destroyed countless lives while targeting Americans for personal choices and peaceful transactions.


"COCAINE UNIQUELY FITS THE FAST-PACED AMERICAN LIFESTYLE," reads a caption for an exhibit at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Museum in Arlington, Virginia. "The Federal Bureau of Narcotics considered cocaine a nearly defeated drug," it continues. "However, cocaine use rebounded, reaching its highest use level ever at the end of the 20th century." It's an oddly candid observation to find in a place you'd expect to celebrate the federal agency whose mission is to "enforce the controlled substances laws and regulations of the United States."

The DEA is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, marking half a century of abject mission failure. During five decades as a bottomless money pit that has destroyed countless lives while targeting Americans for personal choices and peaceful transactions, the agency's annual budget has ballooned from $75 million to $3.2 billion. The DEA currently operates 90 foreign offices in 67 countries. It has seized billions of dollars in drugs, cash, vehicles, and real property. Since 1986, it has arrested more than 1 million people for manufacturing, distributing, or possessing illegal drugs. Yet in 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) counted more than 107,600 drug-related deaths—an all-time high. The DEA's own data show a steady, gradual decline in price and rise in purity for most street drugs since the 1980s. The DEA's 2020 National Drug Threat Assessment notes that methamphetamine "purity and potency remain high while prices remain relatively low," and cocaine availability remains steady.

While there are some reasons to believe Americans may finally have tired of the DEA's oversized role in their lives, the agency remains a powerful force. To understand what went wrong—and why it will keep going wrong—you have to go back to the agency's origins.

'Public Enemy Number One'

On April 4, 1972, President Richard Nixon's drug war landed in Humboldt County, California. The DEA, which was established the following year, was still only a glimmer in Nixon's eye at this point. But its playbook was being written here, outside the backwoods cabin of 24-year-old Dirk Dickenson.

As a Huey helicopter touched down near the cabin, plainclothes law enforcement officers brandishing pistols and long guns leaped out. The chopper was accompanied by five police cars. There were 19 law enforcement agents in total, including the county dogcatcher. Two television cameramen and a newspaper photographer were in tow as well, lured by a deputy sheriff's promise of the biggest drug bust in county history. They were expecting to find a huge PCP lab guarded by gun-toting, long-haired freaks.

The officers were the tip of the spear in a new campaign. A year earlier, Nixon had declared drug abuse "America's public enemy number one" and vowed to "wage a new, all-out offensive" against it.

Dickenson and his girlfriend both initially wandered outside to gawk and wave at the helicopter landing on their property. Dickenson, like many other California hippies, had drifted into rugged Humboldt County to escape the bummers of city life. When they caught sight of the guns, Dickenson and his girlfriend realized this wasn't a friendly house call and rushed back inside.

Several things then happened very quickly, all under the deafening sound of the helicopter's rotors. The officers started breaking down the front door of the cabin. Dickenson ran out the back and bolted for the treeline. Several officers gave chase, but one of them stumbled and fell. Lloyd Clifton, a former Berkeley police officer and an agent of the federal government's 4-year-old Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD), assumed his bumbling comrade had been shot. Clifton stopped, leveled his .38 revolver at the fleeing, unarmed hippie, and shot Dickenson in the back while TV cameras rolled.

Dickenson died from massive internal bleeding while waiting to be evacuated to the hospital. Police found personal-use amounts of marijuana, hashish, peyote buttons, and LSD in Dickenson's cabin, but no giant drug lab. A judge later dismissed charges of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter against Clifton, the first federal drug agent to be charged with homicide.

The BNDD was the precursor to the DEA, created as part of a plan to consolidate federal drug enforcement—then split among several agencies and departments—under one umbrella agency and massively increase its funding. At its founding in 1968, the BNDD had 615 agents and a $14 million budget. Its early efforts were focused on three sources of drugs consumed by Americans: marijuana pouring in from Mexico, heroin smuggled from France, and domestically manufactured LSD. The lead agent in the Dickenson raid had previously arrested Owsley Stanley, the Grateful Dead's soundman and one of the biggest acid cooks in the country.

In 1973, the DEA was formally created by a reorganizational plan that Congress approved, absorbing the BNDD and several other federal agencies. Its beginnings were not auspicious. The agency's leadership was hamstrung by backbiting and accusations of corruption, and its on-the-ground operations were dogged by incompetence.

A 1973 New York Times investigation found a string of botched drug raids by BNDD task forces, soon to be the backbone of the DEA, across the country. "Such incidents have resulted in at least four deaths, including one policeman slain when a terror stricken innocent woman shot through her bedroom door as it burst open," the Times reported. "In California one innocent father was shot through the head as he sat in a living room cradling his infant son."

A Rolling Stone editor, Joe Eszterhas, spent two years investigating federal drug enforcement, including the Dickenson raid, and concluded these narcotics agents weren't police officers, whom he had some respect for. They were "deputized gangsters," he wrote in his book Nark!

That was the public perception as well. The DEA's first director, John R. Bartels Jr., complained the American people did not know what the agency really did and regarded its agents "as corrupt Nazis who don't know how to open the door except with the heel of their right foot." (Dirk Dickenson was unavailable for comment.)

But instead of being shelved as an unpopular mistake, those early joint task forces became the blueprint for how domestic drug enforcement is still carried out today. Congress passed new laws, and courts hacked away at the Fourth Amendment to accommodate the drug war and shield officers from liability, allowing the raids to continue unimpeded and largely out of public view.

The DEA Museum does not mention any of the botched raids that figured prominently in the agency's early history, although it does display a .38 revolver like the one that killed Dickenson. The gun looks old-timey and quaint next to the displays of submachine guns and shotguns that DEA agents would soon be armed with.

Doubling Down on a Failed Strategy

Federal marijuana enforcement in the 1970s was a failure by every objective measure. It did not put a dent in the U.S. marijuana supply, despite several busts of massive grow operations. In 1979, for example, a DEA/FBI task force busted Miami's "Black Tuna Gang," which smuggled more than 500 tons of pot into the country over a 16-month period. Yet "by the 1980s," an official DEA history notes without further reflection, "more than 60 percent of American teenagers had experimented with marijuana and 40 percent became regular users. Supply also continued to increase."

The Reagan administration's solution was to double down. In April 1981, presidential adviser (and future attorney general) Edwin Meese announcedto a room of 250 prosecutors that the administration would mount "a more massive and extensive" campaign against drug trafficking than ever before attempted.

In 1985, another helicopter landed in Humboldt County, this time outside the home of Judy Rolicheck and her family. The air power was part of the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, a task force of federal, state, and local law enforcement officers that used helicopters—and even U-2 spy planes—to surveil Northern California for outdoor marijuana grows. After the helicopter landed, around 25 task force members held the Rolichecks at gunpoint for two and a half hours and shot their dog. There was a marijuana grow about 600 yards away, out of sight of the house, but the Rolichecks had nothing to do with it. The agents left, and the family was never charged with a crime.

A lawsuit filed that year by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) on behalf of numerous Humboldt County residents, including Rolicheck, alleged they were being harassed by the low-flying helicopters and that the agents were ransacking their houses and seizing property without warrants. The U.S. Supreme Court would later rule, in a 1989 case involving marijuana, that police could use aircraft to perform warrantless searches of backyards.

This was the beefed-up war on drugs. The DEA was in an arms race against sophisticated cartels and smuggling operations inundating the country with cocaine and marijuana, and the reality on the streets was far messier than the pastel-draped heroics of Miami Vice.

Legendary Miami Herald crime reporter Edna Buchanan described an incident in which a DEA informant who made money on the side by robbing drug dealers ripped off two undercover DEA agents by mistake. The agents responded by initiating a running gun battle down a South Miami street. The informant escaped but turned himself in the next day after reading a newspaper article that explained who his robbery victims were. Since he was a good informant, the feds accepted a heartfelt apology and the return of the stolen cash in lieu of prosecuting him.

During the 1980s, the DEA's powers continued to expand while oversight of its widespread domestic and foreign operations was minimal. In a 1986 cover story for Reason, Dale Gieringer investigated the slimy underworld of the DEA and its confidential informant program, warning that "the DEA has become a law unto itself, an agency out of control." Gieringer described illegal extraditions, abusive searches and seizures, and suspects who were beaten by foreign law enforcement officers at the order of DEA agents.

"Under the aegis of President Ronald Reagan and Attorney General Edwin Meese, the DEA has pursued increasingly aggressive and unscrupulous tactics of entrapment, seizure, surveillance, and paramilitary violence," Gieringer wrote. "Thanks to public antidrug hysteria, a compliant Congress, an uncritical press, and a court system increasingly dominated by Reaganite judges, the DEA has enjoyed virtual carte blanche to trample on individuals' rights."

The Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 strengthened the DEA's influence by expanding civil asset forfeiture, which allows police to seize property allegedly related to criminal activity. The law allowed the federal government to share up to 80 percent of forfeiture revenue with state and local police, creating a strong financial incentive for departments to work with federal task forces and redirect resources to drug enforcement.

In places like Humboldt County, entrepreneurial innovation once again triumphed. The DEA's official history brags that the marijuana eradication campaigns of the 1980s and early '90s "put so much pressure on growers that many abandoned their outdoor cultivation on public and private land for the safety of indoor cultivation." But it adds that "indoor cultivated marijuana created new concerns for law enforcement; it was of such high quality and potency that American marijuana became the most sought-after cannabis in the world."

Tough on Crime

In a televised 1989 speech, President George H.W. Bush announced yet another escalation of the war on drugs while waving a plastic baggie of crack purchased from a dealer whom DEA agents had lured to "a park just across the street from the White House." The dealer got almost a decade in prison, and Bush got his prop. Describing illegal drug use as "the gravest domestic threat facing our nation," he said "we won't have safe neighborhoods unless we are tough on drug criminals—much tougher than we are now."

Tapped to deliver the Democratic Party's response, then-Sen. Joe Biden (D–Del.) complained that Bush was not tough enough. "The president said he wants to wage a war on drugs," Biden said. "But if that's true, what we need is another D-Day, not another Vietnam; not another limited war fought on the cheap and destined for stalemate and human tragedy."

Democrats and Republicans ensured the drug war was not cheap, but the human tragedies continued. During the next two decades, tough-on-crime bills pushed by Biden and like-minded legislators bore their rotten fruit. The total incarcerated population in the United States skyrocketed from roughly 500,000 in 1980 to more than 2.3 million at its peak in 2008.

Drug crimes were not the primary driver of mass incarceration; violent offenses were. But in the federal prison system, about half of all inmates were serving sentences for drug offenses, and they still account for roughly the same share.

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws led to draconian penalties, especially for crack cocaine offenses. Thousands of crack cocaine offenders received federal prison sentences substantially longer than what they would have received for an equivalent cocaine powder violation.

In 1998, for example, Jason Hernandez, then 21, was sentenced to life in federal prison plus 320 years for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine. President Barack Obama commuted his sentence in 2013. "The person who supplied me [with cocaine] ended up getting 12 years," Hernandez told me in 2016. "I got life because I converted it to crack cocaine. I deserved to go to jail. I deserved to go to jail for a long time, but I didn't deserve to die in there."

The war on drugs also consistently produced racially disparate results. In fiscal year 2020, the U.S. Sentencing Commission reports, 77 percent of federal defendants sentenced for crack trafficking were black, while 16 percent were Hispanic and 6 percent were white. In 2019, The Washington Post reported that none of the 179 defendants arrested in DEA "reverse-sting" cases during the previous decade in the Southern District of New York were white.

Meanwhile, the DEA's response to the "opioid crisis" offered a stunning example of drug enforcement's perverse effects. The DEA, working with local and state police, started monitoring doctors and cracking down on those suspected of running "pill mills." The threat of prosecution, combined with restrictions imposed or encouraged by regulators, legislators, and the CDC, drove opioid prescriptions down. But those efforts had the opposite effect on opioid-related deaths, which not only continued to rise but rose at an accelerated rate.

When local pain clinics were shut down or scared away and anxious doctors began eschewing opioid prescriptions, not only addicts but people with legitimate chronic pain issues were left to suffer—or turn to black market alternatives that were much more dangerous because their composition was highly variable and unpredictable. The DEA Museum obliquely acknowledges the unintended but predictable consequences: "Following a crackdown on overprescribing, users turned to heroin. Overdose deaths increased rapidly."

The hazards of black market drugs were magnified by the rise of illicit fentanyl as a heroin booster and substitute, which made potency even harder to predict. Heroin-related deaths quintupled between 2010 and 2016. That number has fallen since then. But for the category of opioids that includes fentanyl and its analogs, deaths rose more than twentyfold between 2013 and 2021. As Reason's Jacob Sullum argued, the DEA's enforcement efforts were not only futile; they were "remarkably effective at making drug use deadlier."

An exhibit just outside the DEA Museum is called "Faces of Fentanyl." Displayed on the walls are thousands of pictures of people who died from fentanyl poisoning, all contributed by family members. The oldest person on the wall is 70. The youngest is 17 months old. The display is sobering but also infuriating given the policy failures that led to its creation.

Stories That Never Add Up

In addition to making drug use deadlier, the DEA makes air travel perilous by robbing passengers who dare to carry large amounts of cash. Stacy Jones became one of those victims when a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screener stopped her at the Wilmington, Delaware, airport in May 2020.

Jones was not very worried at first. She and her husband were returning to their home in Tampa after a casino trip. They had $43,000 in cash in a carry-on bag, which the TSA screener found alarming.

Even after the screener called over a sheriff's deputy, who started to ask about the source of the cash, Jones remained confident that everything would be sorted out. She knew the law, or she thought she did. She knew it was perfectly legal to fly domestically with large amounts of cash. "We're gamblers," Jones says. "We've hit jackpots, and we've traveled with money. So we've never, ever thought that this could happen. Never."

They had a solid explanation: They said they had flown to North Carolina for a casino reopening. They had dinner with friends, who were interested in buying a Maserati that Jones' husband owned. The friends paid for the car in cash. Because of a sudden death in the family, Jones and her husband never made it to the casino. They booked a last-minute flight home. Jones put the money from the car sale, along with cash she had for gambling, in the carry-on bag and headed for the airport.

It was when the deputy called in two DEA agents that Jones got concerned. "When the DEA walked in, it felt serious at that point," she says.

In the interrogation room with the two DEA agents, the pressure on Jones ratcheted up. They made Jones and her husband go over the story again—casino, car purchase, vacation cut short. They brought in drug-sniffing dogs. A DEA agent followed Jones into the bathroom and stood outside the stall. She felt like a criminal, even though she knew she wasn't."

I was shaking, crying, panicking, worried about my job, worried about the money, worried if they were going to take us to jail," Jones says. "The humiliation of that—it's a helpless feeling."

The DEA agents decided the couple's story did not add up. They announced that they were seizing the cash based on suspicion it was drug money. After taking all of the cash the couple had, except for $500 in a bank envelope, they released Jones and her husband to catch their flight home without a receipt or any other paperwork.

Thanks to the laws passed in the 1980s, DEA agents did not need to charge Jones with a crime to seize her money. They simply needed probable cause to believe the money was connected to illegal activity, a judgment that in practice may amount to nothing more than a hunch.

"They just tell you your story doesn't add up," Jones says. "And then they take your money and make you fight for it."

After the couple got home, Jones started researching what had happened to them. She had never heard of civil asset forfeiture before. She quickly discovered she was not alone.

A 2016 USA Today investigation found the DEA, working with local police departments, had seized more than $209 million from at least 5,200 travelers at 15 major airports during the previous decade. The newspaper reported the DEA regularly snoops on travel records and maintains a network of confidential informants in the travel industry.

That was just a partial survey. According to a 2017 report from the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General, the DEA had seized more than $4 billion in cash from people suspected of drug activity during the previous decade. More than three-quarters of that sum—$3.2 billion—was seized from people who, like Jones and her husband, were never charged with a crime.

Although Jones was not prosecuted, she was suspended from her job at Delta Air Lines during the ordeal. After a few months, she was forced to resign until she could clear her name.

When an owner tries to recover property seized by the DEA, the government is supposed to prove a criminal nexus by "a preponderance of the evidence," meaning it is more likely than not that the property is connected to illegal activity. Federal law allows an "innocent owner" defense, which requires a claimant to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he either did not know about any illegal activity or did all he reasonably could to stop it.

Since this is a civil process, however, property owners are not entitled to an attorney. They bear the cost of challenging a forfeiture action and proving their innocence. When Jones called a local attorney the day after the seizure in Delaware, he told her it would cost too much and advised her to just let the money go.

Fortunately for Jones, her research showed that many victims of the DEA's airport seizures were fighting back with help from the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm that combats forfeiture abuse. In July 2020, Jones joined a class action lawsuit the Institute for Justice had filed against the TSA and the DEA. The lawsuit contends the DEA has a policy or practice of presumptively seizing cash in amounts of $5,000 or more from travelers at airports, "regardless of whether there is probable cause for the seizure." That practice, the complaint says, violates the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures.

On November 13, 2020, the U.S. government agreed to return the money the DEA had taken from Jones and her husband. Although Jones was rehired by Delta, the couple never received an apology from the DEA. But why would they? The DEA is only doing what presidential administrations have ordered it to do, and what courts have emboldened it to do for 50 years: fight a pointless, wasteful war that sacrifices the rights of innocent Americans.

Foreign Affairs

While all of this has been going on domestically, the DEA's foreign operations have drawn more scrutiny, for understandable reasons. The history of those efforts is littered with headline-grabbing scandals.

In 1985, drug traffickers abducted and murdered DEA Special Agent Enrique Camarena in Mexico. It was a pivotal moment in DEA history, impelling the agency to focus on transnational cartels. Since then, the DEA's foreign operations have generated some of its greatest successes: the killing of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar in 1993 with the assistance of DEA technology and manpower, the dismantling of the Cali Cartel, and the interdiction of vast quantities of cocaine and other drugs.

But the massive amount of money flowing through the drug trade makes these foreign posts prone to bribery and corruption. During the last decade, DEA offices in Mexico, Honduras, Colombia, and Haiti have all been plagued by accusations of serious misconduct.

A 2015 report from the Justice Department's inspector general revealed that at least 10 DEA agents stationed in Colombia had sex parties with prostitutes hired by cartels. Two years later, another inspector general report concluded the DEA had lied to the public, Congress, and the Justice Department about a 2012 incident in which DEA advisers ordered a Honduran law enforcement helicopter to open fire on a water taxi full of civilians, killing four people, including two women and a 14-year-old boy. Although the DEA insisted someone on the boat had fired on them first, video evidence strongly suggested otherwise.

More recently, a veteran DEA agent, José Irizarry, was sentenced to 12 years in federal prison for conspiring to launder a Colombian cartel's money. But before he went to prison in 2022, Irizarry decided to take everyone else down with him. In a series of interviews with the Associated Press (A.P.), he accused dozens of his colleagues of skimming millions of dollars to fund extravagant lifestyles and debauchery across three continents.

"We had free access to do whatever we wanted," Irizarry told the A.P. "We would generate money pick-ups in places we wanted to go. And once we got there, it was about drinking and girls."

Irizarry repeated the harshest criticisms of the international war on drugs, but this time from the perspective of someone on the inside. "You can't win an unwinnable war," he said. "DEA knows this, and the agents know this….There's so much dope leaving Colombia. And there's so much money. We know we're not making a difference."

In March, the DEA released a review of its foreign operations, initiated in the wake of the Irizarry scandal. While the report makes several recommendations for improving oversight of the agency's foreign posts, the fundamental problem with the DEA's mission to disrupt international drug trafficking can't be fixed: Everyone knows what the score is.

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

The DEA Belongs in a Museum

The DEA Museum takes up a couple of large rooms on the first floor of the agency's headquarters. It's a muted, occasionally amusing collection. Among the exhibits are several issues of High Times, a Homer Simpson bong, a copy of Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems, a "life mask" of Pablo Escobar donated by the Colombian National Police, and the Versace-branded, diamond-studded guns of the notorious cartel boss Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán.

To its credit, the DEA Museum is professional and, if not critical, at least somewhat realistic about the game of whack-a-mole the agency has been playing for the last 50 years. The museum does not ignore marijuana legalization, and it alludes to the disastrous impact of the DEA's crackdown on prescription opioids. But there's always the weight of hanging questions and things left unsaid. Visiting the museum is an exercise in ironic distance; it's a place that public opinion is leaving behind.

In May, Minnesota became the 23rd state to legalize recreational marijuana. A 2022 Pew Survey found that 88 percent of U.S. adults say marijuana should be legal for either medical or recreational use. According to Gallup, two-thirds of Americans favor the latter policy.

In 2020, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize simple possession of all drugs. Another Oregon ballot initiative approved that year authorized the use of psilocybin at state-licensed "service centers." Last year Colorado voters went further by eliminating criminal penalties for noncommercial production, possession, and distribution of five naturally occurring psychedelics. Several cities have taken more modest steps in the same direction.

The DEA continues to dump sand in the gears of legalization where it can. But as the gulf between public opinion and federal drug policy widens, the agency's duties seem increasingly farcical. Five decades should be long enough to admit we've made a terrible mistake and relegate the DEA to a museum.