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Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Overview

The United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is an administrative agency charged with enforcing the nation's drug laws and setting national drug control policy. Created in 1973, the DEA consolidated various drug-related offices. It became a federal agency in the Department of Justice under the Attorney General.

In the decade before its founding, the government noticed an alarming rise in recreational drug use and drug-related crime. Thus, the mission of the DEA includes enforcing the federal Controlled Substances Act laws and regulations. It does this by apprehending drug crime offenders for prosecution. But that only scratches the surface of the many functions of this agency. The DEA is the largest anti-drug organization in the world. It has some 10,000 employees in some 300+ locations, including domestic and foreign offices.

DEA Overview: Mission and Responsibilities

The DEA's mission includes law enforcement efforts and operations to disrupt the illegal drug trade and bring criminals to justice. It also serves as a regulatory agency with the authority to enact rules and make changes related to controlled substances laws. Finally, it engages in community outreach to both youth and adults alike on the dangers of drug use and abuse. It also engages in outreach to reduce the demand for illegal drugs. Some of its key responsibilities include the following:

  • Managing a drug intelligence program and cooperating with state, local, and foreign criminal justice officials
  • Enforcing anti-drug laws such as the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA), the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005, and international treaties
  • Engaging in rule-making activities, drug schedule placement and modification, and other regulatory duties under the CSA
  • Creating programs to reduce the availability of illegal drugs in the U.S. (e.g., crop eradication and substitution)
  • Working with the United Nations, Interpol, foreign countries, and other international organizations to create and enforce international drug control programs
  • Creating educational programs to prevent drug abuse in the U.S., including "Get Smart About Drugs" and "Just Think Twice"
  • Monitoring lawful pharmaceuticals to prevent their diversion to illegal markets and seeking sanctions against those who do not follow the law
  • Maintaining a Most Wanted Fugitives list of international drug offenders
  • Assisting victims and witnesses of drug crimes through the Victim Witness Assistance Program (VWAP)

DEA Operations

Perhaps best known for its role in pursuing high-level drug crimes, the DEA has over 4,600 special agents working in both intelligence and operation divisions. In 2020, it played a part in over 26,000 arrests. Its efforts at bringing high-profile cases to court may often involve many federal law enforcement agencies. Operations may coincide with the work of the FBI, Border Patrol, ICE, and U.S. Attorneys across the nation. Federal prosecutors at the U.S. Department of Justice take these cases to federal court for pleas, trials, and sentencing.

The crisis in overdose deaths from fentanyl and other opioids remains a priority for the DEA. The agency has the resources to step back, investigate, and attempt to disrupt the supply chain. For example, a recent indictment in New York charged a Chinese company and its executive officers with drug-related crimes. Charges included conspiracy to traffic fentanyl and commit money laundering in the U.S. The Attorney General and the DEA claim the company sent large amounts of precursor chemicals for fentanyl production into the U.S.

The DEA emphasizes the need for communities to come together to end the epidemic of fentanyl-related crimes. The agency states that 110,000 Americans died from drug poisoning in the last year. Fentanyl was involved in almost 70% of the cases. In 2022, the DEA stated it took part in the seizure of some 58 million fentanyl pills and some 13,000 pounds of fentanyl powder.

DEA Intelligence Program

Under the Drug Enforcement Administration's Intelligence Program, federal, state, and local agencies collect and exchange information about illegal drug trafficking activities. This enables them to make more arrests. In 1992, the DEA developed the National Drug Pointer Index (NDPIX). Law enforcement inputs data on a drug investigation target into NDPIX, which acts like a switchboard. Other agencies investigating the same target will see an alert when using the system.

The DEA collects three types of drug intelligence—tactical, investigative, and strategic. Tactical information helps with arrests, seizures, and interdictions. Investigative data may provide background information on organizations engaged in drug trafficking and money laundering. Strategic intelligence enables agents to create effective policies and properly distribute resources. It can provide worldwide drug trafficking trends and the locations of distribution networks.

The DEA has more than 680 intelligence analysts in multiple locations around the world, in the Intelligence Division at DEA Headquarters outside Washington, D.C., and in the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC), which targets international drug smuggling and terrorist activities. The agency also supports intelligence training for drug task forces and local, state, and federal law enforcement officials to highlight best practices in the field.

DEA Office of Diversion Control

The DEA Office of Diversion Control carefully monitors the manufacture and sale of all pharmaceuticals to ensure drugs aren't diverted to illegal uses. Under federal law, all businesses, pharmacists, and workers handling controlled substances must register with the DEA. Registrants must follow drug security rules and keep strict records. The DEA oversees the development and modification of federal regulations in this area.

The Office of Diversion Control also enforces international drug import-export treaties and several federal statutes. These include the following:

  • Chemical Diversion and Trafficking Act of 1988
  • Domestic Chemical Diversion Control Act of 1993
  • Comprehensive Methamphetamine Control Act of 1996
  • Methamphetamine Anti-Proliferation Act of 2000
  • Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005

Diversion Control also publishes the Pharmacist's Manual. The manual is a guidance document to assist pharmacists with compliance with the CSA and its regulations.

Community Outreach

The Community Outreach Section of the DEA seeks to reduce drug use and abuse. It aims to educate the community and reduce the demand for illegal drugs. Community Outreach staff compile educational information and distribute it through conferences, school forums, and websites. The program's Just Think Twice has content geared toward a teen audience. Another program, Campus Drug Prevention, focuses on college students. The website Get Smart About Drugs provides resources for educating parents and caregivers.

Administrative Law Judges

As a drug enforcement agency, the DEA regularly brings enforcement actions and regulatory cases. These cases go before independent administrative law judges (ALJs) at the agency. After hearing a DEA case, the ALJ submits its recommended decision to the DEA Administrator for a final ruling. The DEA then publishes these rulings in the Federal Register. Parties can appeal rulings to the federal courts of appeals.

The DEA's Role in Drug Schedules

Consistent with the directives of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), located at 21 U.S.C. 801 et sequence, all controlled substances fall into five federal drug schedules. Substances that fall under Schedule I represent dangerous drugs with no accepted medical use. Drugs placed in Schedules II through V have accepted medical use but also have varying risks for addiction and dependence. Thus, prescription drugs appear in Schedules II through V.

The lower the schedule number, the higher the risk of drug abuse in most cases. For example, heroin is a Schedule I drug with no accepted medical use and a high risk for abuse and dependence. Fentanyl and various opioid drugs can be found in Schedule II, reflecting both their danger and their limited medical use.

The DEA is the federal agency with the authority to maintain and modify drug scheduling under the CSA. Since the 1970s, advocates have challenged the placement of marijuana (cannabis) in the Schedule I classification. In 2022, President Biden requested that the DEA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) review the scheduling of marijuana. Thus, the renewed interest in marijuana provides an opportunity to discuss the DEA's role in the process of drug scheduling.

The DEA is not the only entity that can raise the need to schedule or reschedule a drug. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or any interested party, such as a drug manufacturer or a state, can also petition the DEA to begin the process. The law requires consideration of several factors. These include:

  • The drug's potential for abuse
  • Any known pharmacological effects of the drug
  • Current scientific knowledge of the drug
  • The drug's history and pattern of abuse
  • The scope, duration, and significance of abuse
  • Public health risks associated with the drug
  • Concerns related to psychic or physiological dependence
  • Whether the drug or substance qualifies as an immediate precursor of another scheduled controlled substance

In the case of rescheduling a drug, the DEA asks the HHS to review the medical and scientific evidence surrounding the drug's schedule. The HHS delegates such research to the FDA, which weighs the eight factors listed above. Once the FDA completes its review, the HHS will make its final recommendation to the DEA. The DEA Administrator then will announce any decision.

In 2016, the DEA completed the last review on marijuana. In maintaining marijuana as a Schedule I substance, the DEA relied on the HHS report stating there was no currently accepted medical use. The HHS claimed that there were no well-controlled studies to support the change. They also concluded there was no consensus from health care experts that marijuana was safe and effective in treating a disorder.

At present, some 38 states and the District of Columbia have laws permitting the medical use or recreational use of marijuana to some degree. If the DEA again concludes that marijuana should remain illegal under federal law, then it would be up to Congress to consider a change in its status. Congress could amend the CSA to either remove marijuana from Schedule I or the CSA itself.

Need More Information on the Drug Enforcement Administration? Get Legal Help

Are you seeking more information on the DEA? Do you have reason to think you are the focus of a DEA investigation? In either case, you may benefit from talking to an attorney who understands this area of the law. The regulatory process for controlled substances can be complicated. Drug laws vary between the state and federal governments. Consider contacting a local drug crime lawyer to discuss your specific situation. Find out about your rights and options moving forward.

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