U.S. Drug Enforcement Organization: Social Agency

Subject: Sociology
Pages: 9
Words: 2367
Reading time:
9 min
Study level: College


The social agency selected for analysis is the US Drug Enforcement Organization. Its long-term history goes back to the beginning of the 20th century and is closely connected with the American drug policy. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is a governmental social agency established in 1973. Law enforcement systems, like all social systems, are prone to inefficiencies and corruption; a drug policy that makes millions of dollars available for the “purchase” of special favors from police, courts, and prisons invites the extremes. Even if corruption is not taken into account, courts are suffering from the pressures of an overload of drug-related cases that have at least two negative effects on civil liberties: Thesis The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration provides effective policies and programs which help criminal justice to fight with drug trafficking and drug dealing.

Main Text

A brief history of American drug policy might be helpful in setting the stage for what follows. Until the latter part of the nineteenth century, government policy was libertarian and hands-offish. Drugs were generally seen as beneficent medicines until the last quarter of the century when the addictive properties of morphine, long a favorite pain reliever, became evident and troublesome. The stimulating properties of cocaine were also well known, and the drug was included in Coca-Cola until 1903.

In 1906 the Pure Food and Drug Act required identification of all medicinal ingredients on product labels, and physicians began to cut down on the use of morphine (The US Drug Enforcement Administration 2008). The first major federal drug law was the Harrison Act of 1914, which regulated opiates and cocaine through record-keeping rules and taxation. Interestingly, this act was passed partly to show the Chinese that the state was serious about urging other nations to reduce trade in narcotics and partly to assist the Chinese, who also wanted other nations to exercise more control over drug traffic as a part of their own long struggle with the abuses of opium (El-Ayouty et al. 2000).

Although written as a taxation measure, the Harrison Act was clearly intended by the enforcement agencies to prohibit the use of cocaine and narcotic drugs, to remove such drugs totally from non-medical commerce, and to prevent physicians and pharmacists from supplying users with drugs when no medical treatment was intended. Regulated medical uses of morphine and cocaine continued through the 1920s, though general imports of these drugs for other than medical uses were banned (Dolgoff and Feldstein 2007).

In 1930 the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) was established in the Treasury Department, and a crusading anti-drug activist, Harry J. Anslinger, was named director. From then on, the medical orientation toward the drug problem was subordinated in federal policy to the criminal one. Anslinger, who remained FBN Director until 1962, sparked increasingly punitive laws against drugs, beginning with the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 which, as the Harrison Act did for narcotics and cocaine, restricted marijuana’s use to a very few medical processes, imposed taxes on its importation, and made unauthorized possession a criminal act.

Additional laws in the fifties further tightened criminal sanctions against the possession, trade, and use of marijuana, cocaine, and heroin; the death penalty was authorized for a person over 18 convicted of selling heroin to a minor (The US Drug Enforcement Administration 2008).

The first heavy assault, if not a full blown “war” on drugs began in the 1960s with the Johnson administration. In 1968, the old Bureau of Narcotics was merged with the Bureau of Drug Abuse Control from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare into a new Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD), assigned to the Justice Department and given broader enforcement powers. Contemporaneously, the medical orientation began to reappear, with the rise of new treatment methods and an increased recognition of the drug problem as one of public health. Nonetheless, the laws and their sanctions remained in full force.

This war was accelerated in the Nixon administration through the Coprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. Though originally intended to consolidate drug-related legislation written over the preceding sixty years, the act ended up with major revisions to penalties for violations and strengthened regulation of the pharmaceutical industry. Its Title II, the Controlled Substances Act, established five separate categories, or “schedules,” for classifying and regulating narcotics and other dangerous drugs (The US Drug Enforcement Administration 2008).

The five schedules now encompass more than twenty thousand substances, ranging from those judged most harmful and likely to be abused, to relatively benign, palliative drugs. In reading these schedules, it is useful to keep in mind that they represent a mixture of attitudes and fears, some scientific knowledge, plus political agendas of the government agencies that produced them. The schedules are essentially compromises reached between Senate and House committees and their Democratic and Republican legislators, and between Congress and the Nixon administration.

Still worse, the act authorized the attorney general (not the surgeon general) to alter the classifications from time to time as needed. Judges found themselves bound by this political, not scientific, classification system in assessing penalties, and drug education programs still take cues from it. The terms medicinal use, addictive potential, and abuse are ill-defined even twenty-some years after the schedules were created (El-Ayouty et al. 2000).

In 1973 President Nixon ordered the creation of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) with the mission to immobilize by arrest and prosecution major drug violators to the Controlled Substances Act operating at interstate and international levels. The DEA took over the Customs Service’s Drug Intelligence Unit, the old BNDD, the Office of National Narcotics Intelligence, and the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement.

Without dwelling on the details of these bureaucratic arrangements, it is possible to take note of them to illustrate a growing tendency toward the assumption of power into a national drug police force, in contrast to traditional state and local authority, a force whose power has continued to expand to this day. The Ford and Carter administrations were less consumed by the drug problem, with President Carter going so far as to suggest that the mere possession of a small amount of marijuana be decriminalized. Carter believed that police resources could be better used against the “hard” drugs and more serious crime.

Neither administration, however, made any moves against the existing body of anti-drug law. The second and fully declared war on drugs began in the Reagan years and has been expanded with increased budgets and stronger rhetoric during the Bush administration (The US Drug Enforcement Administration 2008). In 1982 the attorney general reorganized the Department of Justice so that the Drug Enforcement Administration director was responsible to the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Enforcement was increased; the Posse Comitatus Act, proscribing the use of the military in enforcing domestic laws, was revised in 1982 to permit military interdiction of inward-bound drugs, and again in 1986 to provide for emergency assistance to civilian law enforcement agencies. The DEA has become a very large outfit, with well over 5,000 people in its employ, including around 3,000 special agents, nearly 600 lawyers, 200 intelligence specialists, 150 or so chemists, and many other specialists. It has offices in several countries, notably Bolivia, Peru, Mexico, France, Thailand, Turkey, and Colombia, and a proposed 1992 appropriation of $748 million.

The mission of this social agency is “to enforce the controlled substances laws and regulations of the United States and bring to the criminal and civil justice system of the United States, or any other competent jurisdiction, those organizations and principal members of organizations, involved in the growing, manufacture, or distribution of controlled substances appearing in or destined for illicit traffic in the United States; and to recommend and support non-enforcement programs aimed at reducing the availability of illicit controlled substances on the domestic and international markets” (The US Drug Enforcement Administration 2008).

The mission reflects the main areas of performance and work, the main trends and directions of the agency. The agency has a number of interesting features. First, it asserts that the essence of the drug problem is “use itself” and that highest priority should be given to attacking use nation-wide-experimental first use, casual use, regular use, and addictive use alike. The focus of the attack should be not on addicts but on the millions of non-addicted drug users, each of whom is “highly contagious” and a potential “agent of infection” (El-Ayouty et al. 2000).

The annual budget of the organization is $2.415 billion (2006). The financial resources are spend on special education programs for community and training of employees, new technology and innovative methods which help to reduce number of drug users and prevent drug trafficking. The reality of the distinction between abuser and dealer is hard to maintain, however, for, as in every country, abusers often have to be dealers in order to afford their habits. Thus they run a double risk and, when caught, choose to appear as abusers if they can, hoping for a civil commitment instead of a criminal conviction.

Even so, dealers who deal to support their personal habits are likely to receive more lenient punishment than vocational dealers. Penalties for trafficking violations tend to be mild when compared with American standards. An importer, exporter, producer, or distributor of illicit drugs in major quantities may get a prison term of up to five years. A quantity is “major” if its transmittal would present an extensive public health hazard. Sentence length may also be extended if the convicted person is a member of a criminal drug distributing organization (up to ten years), has a previous conviction for a similar offense or deals in very large quantities (Horowitz, 2001).

The UD drug enforcement administration is one of the main agencies which support criminal justice system and control drug trafficking. Thus, the work of this social agency is often criticized because of high costs, risks to civil liberties, corruption of police, needless marginalizing of people for minor user offenses–and offers little hope of producing anything approximating a society free of drugs. These scholars also see little hope of major reform in drug policies toward greater liberalization in view of the widespread fear of drugs that has taken root in all of their countries (Horowitz, 2001).

All government policies have costs, even policies that do not have action programs attached to them. The laissez-faire policies with regard to industrial expansion and the use of children and unorganized adults in the work force during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had heavy costs in poor child health and restricted life expectancies. The mix of today’s policies about the use of illicit drugs also has costs as well as benefits. Most of these costs are associated with action programs that have been established in order to ameliorate various problems connected with drug use.

It is the task of policy makers to seek out policies and to define their objectives so as to maximize the balance of public goods over the public afflictions wrought by the problem that policy makers are charged to reduce. Though economics underlies and guides most of thinking on public issues–like making industries more efficient and more competitive with those of other countries or restoring a more healthful air quality or improving national defense–economic values are insufficient. Money and its uses mediate most aspects of national aspirations, be they housing, security, health, education, recreation, or any of many other aspects of human development (Horowitz, 2001).

Trying to “cost out” the national drug problem is a formidable task, to say the least, one loaded with opportunities for procedural error, confused by the non-quantifiability of many important costs, beset by risks of miscellaneous misunderstandings, and fraught with basic philosophical disagreement on such topics as individual freedom, basic civil liberties, and the role of government in managing the private lives of citizens (El-Ayouty et al. 2000).

To make progress toward eventually relieving the country of the major afflictions of drug use and the scourge of the drug war, it is absolutely necessary to make the effort. Then it may be possible to discern some areas in which costs can be reduced and the general welfare enhanced. From this analysis must come the conclusion that the drug problem that plagues America today is indeed tragically costly–in dollars spent for treatment, law enforcement, and incarceration; in dollars lost to sickness, early deaths, lessened productivity, and engagement in non-productive criminal careers; and in dollars spent on efforts to stem the inbound flow of drugs.

It is costly in deteriorating neighborhoods, broken families, dead children, corrupt officials, courts that do not administer justice, schools where children cannot learn. The problem is also costly in degrading the lives and institutions of neighboring countries and in reducing the prospects for good political and economic relations with them. National drug policy should aim to improve the quality of neighborhood life and the safety of the streets.

It has been extensively documented that the illegality of both the use and sale of heroin, cocaine, and marijuana has contributed tragically to the decline of neighborhood quality in cities all across the country, and that the decline is due primarily to the illegality of those substances and their attendant black markets and turf wars (Horowitz, 2001).

A relaxation of controls, along the line suggested just above, would undercut the incentives to criminal sales–even at the risk of depriving many inner-city youth of the most lucrative youth employment program of the century. The DEA’s policy should encourage reasonably efficient allocations of resources particularly designed to alleviate the drug-use problem; it should also seek to reduce costs, monetary and others, that result from the present fact that the sale and use of some drugs are illegal (Dolgoff and Feldstein 2007).

In sum, the social agency analyzed above introduced effective policies and programs which help to control and reduce drug trafficking and drug usage in the USA. National drug policy should aim to reduce frictions between the United States and other countries, and encourage the development and strengthening of democratic forms of government in them. This objective should also seek to effect reductions in costs not easily expressible in dollar terms, especially costs to civil liberties, and here, too, opportunities abound.


Dolgoff, R. & Feldstein, D. (2007). Understanding Social Welfare, a Search for Social Justice (7th Ed.).

El-Ayouty, Y. et al. (2000). Government Ethics and Law Enforcement: Toward Global Guidelines. Praeger Publishers.

Horowitz, J. L. (2001). Should the DEA’s Stride Data Be Used for Economic Analyses of Markets for Illegal Drugs? Journal of the American Statistical Association 96 (456), 1254.

The US Drug Enforcement Administration. (2008). Web.