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The DEA Turns 30

A change of leadership should prompt rethinking of anti-drug strategies -- but don't hold your breath.
 
 
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The federal Drug Enforcement Administration celebrates its thirtieth birthday this month, as the U.S. Senate ponders the nomination of Karen P. Tandy to be the first woman ever to head the anti-drug agency.

If U.S. drug policies were rooted in facts and logic, this would be occasion for a searching reexamination of the DEA's priorities and tactics, not to mention the wisdom of the laws the agency was created to enforce. That is about as likely as George W. Bush deciding to replace Dick Cheney with Al Sharpton as his 2004 vice presidential running mate.

On June 25, the Senate Judiciary Committee held what they tried to pass off as a hearing on Tandy's nomination. No Democrats bothered to show up., and the few Republicans present asked precisely zero challenging questions. A handful of committee members say they plan to submit written questions to Tandy, a career drug war apparatchik, but all indications are that her nomination will sail through without significant debate.

So our anti-drug crusade can be expected to continue pretty much as usual -- as perhaps the cruelest, most spectacular policy failure in the history of the republic.

Formed by an executive order signed by President Richard Nixon in July 1973, the DEA was supposed to establish a unified command for federal efforts that would, at long last, win the war on drugs. Its budget has skyrocketed, from less than $75 million in fiscal 1973 to an estimated $1.9 billion in the current fiscal year.

Not surprisingly, this 2,500 percent funding increase helped kick-start a massive upsurge in arrests. According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, the annual number of arrests for drug crimes skyrocketed from 328,670 in 1973 to 1,586,902 in 2001. That 2001 figure includes 723,627 arrests for marijuana offenses -- more than double the number arrested for all drug crimes combined in 1973.

This skyrocketing arrest rate, coupled with lengthy prison terms required by mandatory minimum sentencing laws, has led to an incarceration rate that strains state budgets and shocks most of the world. One thing it has not done, though, is reduce the availability of illegal drugs.

Every year, the federally-funded Monitoring the Future study surveys teenagers about illegal drug use and availability. In 1975, the first year the survey was conducted, 87.8 percent of high school seniors said that marijuana was "easy to get." In 2002 that figure was 87.2 percent. Throughout the surveyís 28-year history, this "easy to get" figure has remained astonishingly constant, ranging from a low of 82.7 percent to a high of 90.4 percent.

Meanwhile, the percentage of high school seniors reporting that heroin and cocaine are easy to get has actually increased since 1975.

To most sentient beings, the DEA's record of utter failure at what is theoretically its principal job -- keeping drugs out of the hands of kids -- suggests it might be time to rethink the notion that we can arrest and jail our way out of the drug abuse problem. If some 15 million marijuana arrests since Nixon took office have made no dent in the marijuana supply, why should another 15 million do the trick?

Even those wedded to prohibition ought to wonder about the DEA's -- and indeed the whole federal government's -- near-obsession with marijuana. The DEA continues to waste resources harassing, raiding and prosecuting medical marijuana patients and caregivers in California. Do these people really have nothing better to do?

Disgust with the medical marijuana raids has led several local law enforcement agencies to consider reducing or ending programs in which they cooperate with the DEA. Just how much damage is the agency willing to do to itself in order to keep attacking cancer and AIDS patients?

These are just a few of the questions the Senate should be asking Karen Tandy -- and insisting on direct, no-nonsense answers -- before confirming her to lead the DEA into its fourth decade.

Don't hold your breath.

Bruce Mirken is a longtime health journalist whose work has appeared in Menís Health, California Hospitals, the Miami Herald and San Francisco Chronicle. He now serves as communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project.