The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Explained

Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)

If you've never heard of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), now is your chance to get caught up and savvy with the ins and outs of this government agency.

What is the DEA?

The DEA is a federal agency that deals with — you guessed it — drugs. This is the part of the government that fights to stop dangerous drug use. The DEA is an administration of agents fighting within our borders, as well as globally.

The DEA exists under the Department of Justice, with the main task of combating drug use and smuggling within the United States. This is the agency responsible for creating and handling drug investigations, both in the country and abroad. Ever head of narcs? Yeah, that's them.

Though the DEA oversees narcotics, it often works closely with different governmental departments. Other agencies that the DEA works with to solve cases include the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Its footprint is all over the United States government and even its people — how we think and feel about drug use is a direct reaction from what the DEA has encouraged us to believe.


The first anti-drug enforcement began in 1915 with the Bureau of Internal Revenue, now known as the IRS, with the goal of taking down organized, crime-related drug trade. As the mafia gained traction, the U.S. government took steps to make its businesses regulated, making illegal activities harder. From there, several federal agencies tasked with drug law enforcement were initiated, all having different jobs.

By the 1960s, two main agencies dealt with drugs in the U.S.: The Bureau of Drug Abuse Control (BDAC) and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN). Drugs were being normalized (thanks, free-loving and toking hippies!) and these agencies were proving to be redundant.

Then, there was political pressure placed on drug use as cultural acceptance increased. Heroin and cocaine were being trafficked into the United States by small-scale international drug dealers, and the complexity and scope of addictive drugs were suddenly in the limelight.

In response to this growing pressure, former president Nixon signed the Reorganization Plan No. 2 in 1973, which created an organization with the purpose of enforcing drug laws in addition to creating and enforcing methods of drug control. Thus, the DEA was born, merging various offices to create a single unit of control relating to narcotics. Now, all drug-related offices exist under a single umbrella agency.

Designed to be near the Attorney General's office, DEA headquarters have existed in Washington, D.C. and Arlington, Va., where it is still located. Offices and museums are sprinkled throughout the country (like in Oklahoma City, where the infamous 1995 bombing killed two DEA agents among 166 others), in hopes to spread drug-related education programs as far as possible.

Today, the DEA continues to fight the war on drugs, looking specifically at the manufacturing, distribution, and use of narcotics. Internationally, there's a focus on major production areas, such as Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia, which are known heroin, cocaine, and amphetamine hubs. From there, the drugs are then illegally shipped to distribution sites around the world. An estimated $400 billion is generated in profit each year by the illegal drug trade, according to the United Nations in 1998, though these numbers have likely continued to rise.

Domestically, the drug conversation has entered a stalemate. The current Attorney General Jeff Sessions, appointed as part of the Trump Administration, continues to stay firm on the DEA's stance on marijuana. It is still considered a highly-illegal drug, despite state acceptance and legalization.

What is the Purpose of the DEA?

The DEA wants to protect the American dream and culture against the dangers of drug abuse. It has stayed in business and grown over the years, as drug use has increased in the U.S. According to the DEA's website, drug use is on the rise.

The DEA has imposed four divisions: operations, intelligence, operations support, and inspection.

The operations division is responsible for most DEA-sponsored field missions; this is the largest branch of the agency and is responsible for the bulk of the planning and implementation of investigations and undercover missions — most like pop culture's top-secret drug busts. The intelligence division has operations all over the world, working closely with other governments to take down criminal and terrorist organizations both within the U.S. and abroad. The DEA collects data and are a hub of drug-related information.

The operational support division supplies the information related to infrastructure to agents in the field, as well as conducts administrative duties that aid with equipment, resources, and organizational functions. Forensic science lies within the operational support category.

Last, is the inspection division, which makes sure the public stays safe. It supplies DEA personnel and watches over drug collection, transportation, storage, and destruction closely.

Additionally, the DEA places an emphasis on education. It has its own museum, which is open to the public and offers programs to teach citizens about drug use and abuse.

DEA Programs

The DEA, like other government agencies, is big into programs and initiatives. It spans across the categories of prevention, enforcement via the law, and treatment.

Prevention programs are a large piece of the DEA's identity. It works with other government offices, as well as schools and social service organizations, to teach about the risks that come with doing drugs. Remember the D.A.R.E. program? That wasn't a happy accident. Sometimes prevention programs will manifest into television and radio ads, brochures and flyers, and after-school meet-ups, encouraging (or scaring) kids to "just say no."

There are several law enforcement programs the DEA spearheaded to target organizations that do business in the illegal drug industry. It tries to sniff out money launderers, work with governments to do internal investigations, and even spray herbicide via helicopters to farms raising heroin, coca, or marijuana in South America.

Treatment initiatives exist because drug addiction is considered a disease. Treatment resources, like the Center for Mental Health Services, National Institute on Drug Abuse, Office of National Drug Control Policy, and the National Guard Bureau Counterdrug Program, exist under the umbrella of the DEA.

Illicit Drugs

Google defines a drug as follows:

"a medicine or other substance which has a physiological effect when ingested or otherwise introduced into the body."

Caffeine... Alcohol... Prescription medication given at the doctor's office... Drugs are everywhere! But not all are illegal.

The DEA takes a firm stance against very specific substances, dubbing them against the law. On its website, it warns there is no way to predict the effect a drug can have on each person, since body chemistry and tolerance varies from person to person. It also brings attention to the fact that legal drugs, such as prescription and over-the-counter options, can be just as dangerous as illicit ones.

The DEA has fact sheets for six categories of drugs, including narcotics, hallucinogens, stimulants, depressants, designer drugs, and drugs of concern. Its classifications are as follows:


Narcotics Hallucinogens Stimulants Depressants Designer Drugs Drugs of Concern
Fentanyl Ecstasy/MDMA Amphetamines Barbiturates Bath Salts DXM
Heroin Ketamine Cocaine Benzodiazepines K2/Spice Kratom
Hydromorphone LSD Khat GHB Synthetic Opioids Salvia Divinorum
Methadone Peyote & Mescaline Methamphetamine Rohypnol
Morphine Inhalants
Opium Marijuana
Oxycodone Steroids


What About Weed?

As you probably noticed, marijuana made the list as one of these illicit drugs. The DEA's stance on cannabis is clear; it states:

"Marijuana is a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act, meaning that it has a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the U.S., and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision. Although some states within the U.S. have allowed the use of marijuana for medicinal purpose, it is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that has the federal authority to approve drugs for medicinal use in the U.S. To date, the FDA has not approved a marketing application for any marijuana product for any clinical indication. Consistent therewith, the FDA and DEA have concluded that marijuana has no federally-approved medical use for treatment in the U.S."

In English? It's not budging until the FDA decides cannabis is safe and has practical, medicinal properties. That isn't likely to happen while the federal administration has a firm stance against marijuana, for medical uses or otherwise.

And that's only about medical marijuana. There's not a mention in sight of adult or recreational use. The DEA completely ignores the current status of weed, by not mentioning that some states have gone above and beyond the medical use of cannabis and have legalized it recreationally. Its acceptance and legitimacy are completely ignored, which is a clear indication that the DEA has a long way to go before ever being pro-weed.

But hey, at least it mentions that there has never been a single overdose from weed alone.

Some things to consider: The DEA, while having a mission to protect, is not completely objective. And while it might seem archaic that it still considers marijuana a Schedule 1, dangerous drug, rather than an all-natural herbal source of relief, the administration isn't inherently bad. It has taken a stance and stuck with it, which is unlikely to change until issues of bureaucracy and government shift and the perception of marijuana is changed on a federal level. It is, as unfortunate as it may seem, a product of the current and nearly all former administrations.

For now, marijuana lovers can participate in pro-cannabis activism. With time, the DEA might just have an exhibit dedicated to the evolution of marijuana's nationwide prohibition-turned-acceptance.