What Does the DEA Do?

big DEA letters

Ever since the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, our nation has taken a strong stance against drug use in our society.  From imposing strict laws on marijuana to establishing mandatory minimum sentencing requirements, the United States does not mess around when it comes to the war on drugs.

The Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA, is in charge of enforcing all drug laws and regulations established by the Controlled Substances Act. Aside from all the craziness surrounding marijuana reform, the DEA protects American Citizens from harmful controlled substances and the dangers that come with these black markets.

What is the DEA?

marijuana plant growing close up

The Drug Enforcement Administration is a branch of the Department of Justice that may get a bad rep for its approach towards marijuana reform. Nevertheless, the DEA merely follows the laws established by our government. The DEA came to fruition when Nixon passed the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. It was not until 1973 that the DEA was founded and began its long journey of drug enforcement in the United States.

The Drug Enforcement Administration focuses on bringing all unlawful parties involved in growing, manufacturing, or distributing controlled substances to face the repercussions of the criminal and civil justice system of the United States. In a gist, the DEA is here to enforce all federal drug laws and regulations, but its mission goes further than that.

  • Investigate and prepare for the prosecution of major violators of the controlled substances act operating at the interstate and international levels.
  • Investigate and prepare for the prosecution of criminals and drug gangs who perpetrate violence in our communities and terrorize citizens through fear and intimidation.
  • Manage the national drug intelligence program in cooperation with federal, state, local, and foreign officials to collect, analyze, and disseminate strategic and operational drug intelligence information.
  • Oversee seizure and forfeiture of assets derived from, traceable to, or intended to be used for illicit drug trafficking.
  • Coordinate and cooperate with federal, state, and local law enforcement officials on mutual drug enforcement efforts and enhancement of such efforts through exploitation of potential interstate and international investigation beyond local or limited federal jurisdictions.
  • Responsible for all programs associated with drug law enforcement counterparts in foreign countries.
  • Act as liaison with the United Nation, Interpol, and other organization on matters relating to international drug control programs.
  • Recommend non-enforcement programs aimed at reducing the availability of illicit controlled substances.

The DEA takes on quite a bit when it comes to the war on drugs in the United States. Not only does the DEA oversee and enforce all drug laws and programs, but the DEA can also make suggestions or recommendations to drug reform.

Brief History of the DEA and the War on Drugs

medicine man marijuana plant

The history of the war on drugs goes hand-in-hand with the history of the DEA in the United States. The start of the war on drugs marks a time of great hardships and opposition in our society. Whether it’s intense civil and racial tensions or significant opposition to the war, our government was facing social upheaval during the ’60s and ’70s.

1968 – President Johnson proposed combining the two drug agencies into one new branch of drug enforcement. It merged the Bureau of Narcotics with the Bureau of Drug Abuse Control and became known as the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD).

1970 – The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 was signed into law by President Nixon.

1973 – President Nixon declared “an all-out global war on the drug menace” and formed the Drug Enforcement Administration.

1977 – Senate Judiciary Committee voted to allow the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use. It was later deemed unconstitutional.

1984 – The DEA joined forces with the National High School Athletic Coaches Association to create the Sports Drug Awareness Program. It later developed into programs like D.A.R.E.

1985 – Nancy Regan releases “Just Say No” campaign to fight drug abuse in the nation, especially among minors.

1986 – The Anti-Drug Abuse Act established mandatory minimum prison sentences for specific drug charges.

1987 – The Drug Policy Foundation formed and began pushing back on the war on drugs, particularly marijuana reform.

1990 – The National Red Ribbon Campaign took off after the murder of the DEA Special Agent Enrique Camarena.

1992 – The DEA formed the Kingpin Strategy that focuses on investigative and enforcement efforts on specific drug trafficking groups.

1996 – California became the first state to legalize a medical marijuana program, which opened the floodgates for statewide marijuana reform.

2010 – Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which balanced out the differences between certain drug offenses, primarily the disparity between crack and powder cocaine.

2019 – A majority of states have some sort of marijuana legalization or decriminalization in place. The House introduced a marijuana bill H.R. 420.

The history of drug enforcement in our nation is extensive and deeply rooted in our society. Yes, hard drugs need to be off the street, and drug gangs must be stopped, but a lot of people are confused and wonder “what is the DEA,” which is partially what gives the DEA a bad rep for its approach to marijuana enforcement. Granted, the DEA is merely following the laws set by our government.

The DEA and Marijuana

small amount of weed in a jar that might help with digestion

Of course, the DEA has always had a primary focus on enforcing marijuana laws in the United States. For quite some time, marijuana trafficking was a primary source of capital for many criminal organizations. However, the real reasons behind marijuana prohibition and the war on drugs are quite deceiving to the American people. Even Nixon’s personal aid came clean and stated the war on drugs was pure propaganda to drive social control among opposing communities.

Throughout the years, the DEA has put away major and minor criminals for marijuana consumption, production, and distribution. Fast forward to today, and the DEA must follow a new set of rules when approaching marijuana laws. With a majority of states pushing for legalization, or at least decriminalization, the DEA has drastically pulled back its marijuana enforcement.

  • Ten states and D.C. have legalized recreational marijuana and more are getting on board every year.
  • The Hemp Farm Bill legalized industrial hemp and removed hemp from the Controlled Substances list.
  • Medical marijuana protections keep the DEA from coming down on statewide medical marijuana programs.
  • Further legalization of marijuana is causing a decrease in international marijuana trafficking.

The DEA is still enforcing any cross-state marijuana trafficking laws and black market operations within the United States. With the legalization of industrial hemp, the DEA is having quite the time determining the difference between hemp and cannabis. With that in mind, the gray area between federal and state laws continues to widen as marijuana reform spreads statewide.

In 2019, the Drug Enforcement Administration does not put a significant focus on marijuana enforcement. The federal government recognizes the state’s rights and is not interfering with state marijuana programs. In fact, the federal government is finally looking at a marijuana bill that would drastically affect cannabis reform in the United States.

H.R. Bill 420 was just introduced to the house and, if passed, will remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act and regulate it like alcohol.

Marijuana reform to this extent will likely take the DEA out of the picture when it comes to cannabis regulation moving forward. Even without a focus on marijuana, the DEA has plenty to worry about with the horrific opioid epidemic occurring in our nation.

Stay tuned on all marijuana reform, here!


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Justice Council
Justice Council is a freelance writer, CBD specialist, and cannabis enthusiast located in Denver, Colorado. His wide range of experience as a budtender, delivery driver, and CBD sales rep has given him a unique look into this new world of cannabis. Throughout his career in the industry, Justice has written many pieces on culture, economics, product knowledge, and career opportunities within the cannabis space. He takes pride in being part of a truly pioneering industry.