The DEA Turns 35 This Week!


The Drug Enforcement Administration was created by President Richard Nixon through an Executive Order [on] July [1,] 1973 in order to establish a single unified command to combat "an all-out global war on the drug menace." At its outset, the DEA had 1,470 Special Agents and a budget of less than $75 million. Furthermore, in 1974, the DEA had 43 foreign offices in 31 countries. Today, the DEA has 5,235 Special Agents, a budget of more than $2.3 billion and 86 foreign offices in 62 countries.

So the DEA turns thirty-five this week. That deserves a special celebration.  Let's bust out our handy-dandy calculator and the official government stats.  Time to play Rate the DEA!

Today the DEA has twice the offices in twice the countries with four times the manpower than when it started thirty-five years ago.  In 1973, the DEA had $0.075 billion to work with; today you have $2.3 billion.  That's an increase of 3,067%, or a dramatic thirty-fold increase.  Just what have the American People received for this $31.4 billion dollar, thirty-five year investment?

Are there dramatically fewer drugs now? That's hard to say, since nobody is out there taking official inventories of illegal drugs.  But judging by the Office of National Drug Control Policy's figures that show drug seizures from 1989–2003, it seems that there are plenty of drugs out there.  In that time frame, marijuana and heroin seized by law enforcement about doubled and cocaine remained steady.

Well, those drugs have got to be harder to get, right? All those seizures and agents and arrests must mean the price of drugs has gone up thirty-fold!  According to the ONDCP's report on the Price and Purity of Drugs from 1981–2003, cocaine is one-fifth as expensive (pg 69), crack is about one-third as expensive (pg 71), heroin is one-sixth as expensive (pg 73), and meth is half as expensive (pg 75).  However, the safest of all recreational drugs, marijuana, did double in price (pg 77).

OK, so there are more cheaper drugs that are easier to get, but surely they've got to be less potent! According to the survey previously mentioned, cocaine is about 50% more pure (pg 70), crack's purity hasn't changed much (pg 72), heroin is three times more pure (pg 74), meth purity is about the same (pg 76), and according to the recently released report from the Drug Czar's (Marijuana) Potency Monitoring Project, marijuana potency doubled from 1985-2007 (pg 17).

Wow.  After thirty-five years of substantially escalating DEA budgets, we've got cheaper, more powerful, more plentiful drugs.  But maybe we now have substantially fewer drug users? According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (multiple reports), in 1979 (first year of collected data) 31.3% of the population aged 12 or older had ever used drugs, by 2006 that figure increased to 45.4%.  The percentage of lifetime drug users increased by about half.  In raw figures, people who ever used drugs doubled from 56 million to 111 million.

I would hope, at least, with quadruple the number of agents and thirty times the budget, the DEA would at least have more arrests to show for it. According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, we did go from 628,000 drug law arrests in 1973 to almost 1.9 million arrests in 2006 – that's about triple the number of arrests.

Has the increase in arrests at least helped to save people's lives?  According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, back in 1979, 513 Americans died from overdoses on opiates, cocaine, and meth.  By 1998, nine-times more Americans died from those illegal drugs (4,942 Americans).  (Data from 1999 and later is harder to quantify, as the CDC changed how they classify overdose deaths.  In 1999, 19,128 Americans died of "drug-induced causes"; in 2005, 33,541 died.  However, those figures include the rapidly-increasing deaths from prescription drug overdoses.)

Yikes!  More people are dying from using more plentiful, more powerful drugs.  Perhaps we're not getting to them early enough.  What about the children? Didn't we at least end up with drastically fewer high school seniors using drugs?  According to the Monitoring the Future survey (Table 5-2, pg 199), often cited by the DEA, in 1975 (first year of the survey), 45% of 12th graders had ever tried an illicit drug.  In 2006 (most recent data), the number of seniors who tried drugs was 36.5% – a decline of less than one-fifth in thirty years.  Not exactly drastic.  At this rate, the class of 2125 will be our first drug-free group of 12th graders.

So, not only more adults using cheaper, more powerful, more plentiful drugs, but barely a dent in the kids using these drugs.  But as the US population has increased, there are more teenage drug users overall. Has the DEA at least made it harder for the kids to get drugs?  According to the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration, in 1992, 60% of teenagers said marijuana was easy to obtain, 40% said the same about cocaine, and about a quarter said they could get heroin easily.  In 2006, half of teenagers say it's easy to get pot, one quarter say it's easy to get cocaine, and about one seventh say it's easy to get heroin.

All right, then, we've seen the availability of drugs drop by roughly one-fifth among teenagers in fourteen years.  But when more than a third of kids have tried drugs and half of them say drugs are easy to get, I don't think that's much of a success story for a $31 billion 35-year effort.

Bigger budgets, more drugs.  More arrests, more deaths.  More seizures, more potency.  More agents, more users.  For their thirty-fifth anniversary, perhaps they should change their name to the Drug Encouragement Administration.

July 3, 2008