35 years of drug war failure
By Bill Steigerwald
Sunday, July 13, 2008
Belated birthday greetings to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The DEA, which Richard Nixon created in 1973 and charged with the
impossible but politically useful mission of winning the "all-out
global war on the drug menace," turned 35 on July 1.
So, how's its track record after 35 years of difficult, often
dangerous drug-war-making? If the DEA were a heroin addict, it would
have overdosed on its own incompetence by age 6.
Despite its failures and the harm it's done to American society,
however, the DEA has done more than merely survive. It's become a
typically bloated, self-preserving federal bureaucracy whose power,
budget and continuing existence bear no relation to its performance.
In 1974 the DEA had 1,470 special agents, a budget of less than $75
million ($346 million in 2007 money) and 43 offices in 31 countries.
Today, it has 5,235 special agents, a $2.3 billion budget and 87
offices in 63 countries.
If you consider locking up mostly pot smokers and other perpetrators
of victimless crimes a valid measure of success in the war on drugs,
the DEA and its fellow state and local drug warriors deserve high praise.
Annual drug arrests have tripled in the last 25 years to 1.8 million
in 2005 (when 43 percent of all drug arrests were for marijuana
offenses). And we had about 500,000 drug criminals in various
federal, state and local slammers in 2005, compared with 41,000 in 1980.
The DEA touts its latest alleged successes in cutting demand for
drugs on its Web page
(usdoj.gov/dea/pubs/cngrtest/ct031208_successes08.pdf). If you can
believe the DEA's current statistics or those annual pronouncements
of tough-talking White House drug czars, we're winning the drug war
-- again and again.
Yet today illegal drugs are as plentiful and cheap as ever. And rates
of drug use are essentially the same as they were when the DEA was
born, according to Monitoring the Future, which each year since 1975
has studied the behaviors, attitudes and values of 50,000 American
Based on Monitoring the Future's latest study, the DEA's most
significant career victory over drugs is that the percentage of
12th-graders who reported using marijuana dropped from 40 percent in
1975 to 31.7 percent in 2007.
Otherwise, despite untold billions blown on the war on drugs, the
percentage of kids in 1975 who reported using cocaine (5.6 percent)
and heroin (1 percent) has dropped insignificantly to 5.2 percent and
0.9 percent, respectively, in 2007.
Meanwhile, a new study of drug use by the World Health Organization
casts further doubt on the long-term efficacy of our war on drugs.
Of 17 countries surveyed, China and Japan had the lowest rates of
drug use and the United States had the highest rate -- by far.
Obviously, culture, economics and politics play important roles, but
WHO's researchers found that there's no relationship between a
country's strict anti-drug policies and its levels of drug use.
Maybe it's unfair to dump on the DEA, especially on its birthday.
After all, it's only following orders.
It's not the DEA's fault that for 35 years Congress and seven
presidents haven't had the brains or the political courage to
decriminalize marijuana or at least work to humanize America's drug policy.
So happy birthday, DEA. But not many happy returns.
Bill Steigerwald is the Tribune-Review's associate editor. He can be
reached at email@example.com or 412-320-7983.
Dissing the DEA
Friday, July 25, 2008
As a former special agent in charge serving in South America,
Thailand, New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco, and with over 35
years experience in all phases of narcotic enforcement, I take
exception to Bill Steigerwald's column criticizing the Drug
Enforcement Administration for becoming a "bloated, self-preserving
federal bureaucracy whose power, budget and continuing existence bear
no relation to its performance" ("35 years of drug war failure", July
13 and PghTrib.com).
The DEA doesn't waste valuable time arresting pot smokers and
perpetrators of victimless crimes.
• Fifty high-ranking Mafia families, Gambino, Genevese and Ormento,
were all arrested and jailed in New York for drug trafficking and conspiracy.
• Undercover operation "French Connection" arrested Auguste Ricord
for conspiracy and importing multi kilos of heroin into the U.S. This
case was made as a result of DEA cooperation with the French and U.S.
police in New York and with Interpol.
• Timothy Leary, the guru of LSD, was charged with illegal
manufacturing of the drug and setting up numerous labs nationwide.
• In San Francisco, 40 Hell's Angels were arrested and charged with
drug and racketeering charges.
• The DEA in cooperation with foreign diplomats and law enforcement
officials caused the extradition of numerous Mafia drug traffickers
from Thailand, South America, Mexico and Europe.
Mr. Steigerwald made no mention of numerous DEA, state, local and
foreign agents who lost their lives fighting the drug wars.
And it should be noted that the responsibility of setting U.S. drug
policy enforcement and intelligence gathering lies with the DEA, FBI,
U.S. Customs, CIA, U.S. Coast Guard, State Department, Congress, the
White House and state and local law enforcement agencies.
I agree with Mr. Steigerwald that the marijuana laws should be
decriminalized, but that would take the White House's and Congress' approval.
Daniel J. Addario
New Bern, N.C.