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The DEA’s Most Recent Abuse of Power Should Renew Calls for Divestment

A critical look at the DEA is long overdue. The agency has existed for more than forty-five years but little attention has been given to the role it has played in fueling racial disparities, mass criminalization, the surveillance state, and other drug war harms.

Drug Enforcement Administration police are seen as demonstrators marched to Freedom Plaza from Capitol Hill to honor George Floyd and victims of racial injustice on Saturday, June 6, 2020. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Drug Enforcement Administration police are seen as demonstrators marched to Freedom Plaza from Capitol Hill to honor George Floyd and victims of racial injustice on Saturday, June 6, 2020. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

As calls to divest, defund and abolish local police agencies echo across the U.S., it is also time to elevate those calls to apply to federal paramilitary agencies including the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).

Over the last few weeks, we have watched President Trump respond to the nation's widespread protests over the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the thousands of Black and Brown people killed each year by police, byactivating the DEA, Customs and Border Protection, and other agencies to enforce laws and conduct covert surveillance that bear no relationship to drugs. Trump also threatened authoritarian-style military intervention and used military-style assault to rid the area around the White House of peaceful protestors, making it clear that lawful resistance against police brutality will be met with a stronger militarized force than protestors are already fighting against.

"It is time for Congress to stand up and dismantle the DEA. The agency has fueled and exacerbated the harms of the drug war and is now being used for a questionable purpose. Not only do we need to curb the immediate expansion of the DEA authority, we need to divest from the DEA altogether."

In no way is this aggressive overreaction, militarization, and attempts to suppress protected speech and assembly excusable. Nor is there justification to use DEA personnel and equipment to conduct investigations or any other functions. Such uses are not only unjustifiable, but the legal authority used to support the sharing of DEA resources is questionable. The President and the Attorney General do not have unfettered discretion to use DEA resources for general investigations unrelated to drugs, the purposes for which Congress appropriated funds.

The mission of the DEA is, as its name clearly suggests is to enforce drug laws. But as the agency begs Congress for more funding to “disrupt and dismantle the ‘most wanted’ drug trafficking and money laundering organizations believed to be primarily responsible for the nation’s illicit drug supply,” itis now diverting funds to conduct surveillance of protestors that have nothing to do with drug enforcement.

Even prior to the recent protests, the agency had a history of questionable enforcement practices, alleged human rights abuses, payments of millions of dollars to informants, and failures to follow statutory requirements that its decisions be based on scientific evidence. These scandals include themassacre of civilians in Honduras,the inappropriate use of NSA resources to spy on U.S. citizens and the use of fabricated evidence to cover it up, thewarrantless tracking of billions of U.S. phone calls, and the misuse ofconfidential informants.

A critical look at the DEA is long overdue. The agency has existed for more than forty-five years but little attention has been given to the role it has played in fueling racial disparities, mass criminalization, the surveillance state, and other drug war harms. Congress has rarely scrutinized the DEA, its actions or its budget, instead showing remarkable deference to the agency. Now is the time to change that.

It is time for Congress to stand up and dismantle the DEA. The agency has fueled and exacerbated the harms of the drug war and is now being used for a questionable purpose. Not only do we need to curb the immediate expansion of the DEA authority, we need to divest from the DEA altogether.

As a first step, Congress must open an investigation into the DEA and immediately oppose the use of federal resources to surveil and impede the constitutional rights of Americans, especially during this pivotal moment of awakening and public expression of frustration over the long history of police misconduct in the United States.

Congress should also significantly cut DEA funding, particularly for domestic surveillance that’s been a tool of past civil rights violations and now misused for investigating protesters. For far too long, there has been no accountability whatsoever for this rogue agency that has engaged in decades of misconduct, wasted millions in taxpayer dollars, and achieved essentially nothing towards their stated goal of interrupting the drug supply chain, meanwhile filling our federal prisons with people primarily charged with possession or low-level sales.

Events of the past several weeks have opened the eyes of the general public to police abuse of power, misuse of authority, improper use of force and the criminalization of our Black and Brown communities. Much of that injustice—including the militarization of police and illegal surveillance of Americans—has arisen from the excesses of the drug war. In its futile efforts to stop the importation of substances the DEA’s budget has become bloated and its actions unchecked. And now, the agency has become an extension of Trump’s police state.

Black and Brown people will forever be gasping for air until we divest from ineffective, inhumane and scandal-ridden agencies like the DEA.

Maritza Perez

Maritza Perez is the Director of the Office of National Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance in Washington, DC where she leads the organization’s federal legislative agenda and strategy.

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