New York Times Op-Ed Slams "Incompetent" DEA Over Opioid Crisis

By Victoria Kim 09/21/18

The writers of a scathing op-ed believe the federal agency “deserves much of the blame" for opioid-related deaths.

DEA agents escorting a suspect
Photo via YouTube

A recent op-ed in the New York Times does not mince words in its critique of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). “Because of its incompetence, the opioid crisis has gone from bad to worse. The solution: overhauling the agency, or even getting rid of it entirely,” write Leo Beletsky and Jeremiah Goulka in the Sept. 17 opinion piece.

Rather than pointing to pharmaceutical drug makers or drug cartels, Beletsky and Goulka—of Northeastern University’s Health in Justice Action Lab—say the DEA “deserves much of the blame" for rising opioid-related deaths. This summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that more than 72,000 Americans died of a drug overdose in 2017—with opioids accounting for more than 49,000 of the deaths. 

The federal agency’s response to rising opioid abuse in the United States did little to mitigate the growing epidemic, the authors write. While the DEA has the authority to establish “non-enforcement programs aimed at reducing the availability” of illicit drugs—e.g. expanding evidence-based treatment from a public health perspective—instead, in its decades-long existence, the agency has opted to ramp up the enforcement side of its mandate.

“Instead the agency pushed for surveillance of prescription records and electronic communication, doubled down on prosecuting prescribers and helped to tighten the screws on patients seeking pain relief,” reads the op-ed.

The agency’s enforcement-heavy response to painkiller abuse only pushed people to seek illicit substitutes like heroin and counterfeit pills, and to encourage drug traffickers to “create more compact, potent drugs” like fentanyl.

This resulted in more deaths as well as the spread of HIV and hepatitis (from sharing needles), while access to evidence-based treatment for drug use disorder, like methadone, saw little improvement.

Not only is the DEA accused of employing tactics that have “fueled the opioid crisis,” in the 40-plus years since it was established under the administration of former President Richard Nixon (the man who declared drugs “Public Enemy Number 1”) the agency’s approach has had a harmful effect on community policing, and it has earned a reputation for botched operations at home and abroad in its tireless campaign to hunt down illicit drug suppliers. (The agency has the largest foreign presence of any U.S. federal law enforcement agency, according to its 2018 Budget Request.)

“It has eroded civil liberties through the expansion of warrantless surveillance, and overseen arbitrary seizures of billions of dollars of private property without any clear connection to drug-related crimes,” write Beletsky and Goulka.

And in the DEA’s long history, “these actions have disproportionately targeted people of color, contributing to disparities in mass incarceration, confiscated property, and collective trauma.”

By taking Nixon’s “War on Drugs” a bit too literally, the DEA’s focus on the law enforcement side of its mandate has done nothing to reduce the amount of drugs consumed by Americans. “The agency was supposed to curb problematic drug use, but failed to do so because its tactics were never informed by public health or addiction science,” write Beletsky and Goulka.

The authors of the op-ed offer a solution: reinvent the DEA “from the bottom up.” One way to do this is to transfer regulatory authority over the pharmaceutical supply to the Food and Drug Administration.

Currently the DEA is in charge of how controlled substances are classified, produced and distributed. (For example, under the DEA, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug, which are considered the most dangerous, alongside heroin and LSD.)

Some of its law enforcement efforts can be transferred to the FBI or local authorities, or eliminated altogether, the authors suggest.

And a “significant portion” of the DEA’s budget should go to life-saving measures like access to high-quality treatment. The agency requested a budget of $2.16 billion for fiscal year 2018, a $77 million increase from the year prior.

According to the authors, the agency is an emblem of the failure of Nixon’s “War on Drugs” and the failure of the federal government to make significant progress in reducing drug abuse in the United States.

Forty-seven years after Nixon declared a “War on Drugs,” the authors say it’s time to “urgently rethink how our nation regulates drugs.”

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr