At DEA, We Made the Drug Problem Worse, Not Better

Friday, August 3rd, 2012

By Sean Dunagan, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition

The war on drugs has failed.  Its failure has been so categorical and self-evident that the statement itself is bromidic.  By any reasonable metric of success—addiction rates, violence, the availability of drugs in our schools— it’s clear that our 40-year jihad against certain plants and chemicals has done far more harm than good.  Despite this, the federal government’s drug war strategy, which is founded upon aggressive law enforcement and mass incarceration, remains unchanged.  We continue to arrest nearly a million people a year for marijuana offenses.  We remain the world’s leading jailer, with an incarceration rate more than five times the global average.  And this year, the federal government will spend nearly $4 billion more on drug law enforcement and interdiction than it will on drug treatment.

What has this strategy gotten us?  The highest drug abuse rates on the planet and 50,000 corpses in Mexico.

The American people—along with a growing chorus of world leaders—are rapidly waking up to this reality.  Just 10 percent of the public now believes that the drug war is succeeding, and a majority now favors marijuana legalization.  To mix metaphors a bit, public opinion is undergoing a sea-change and is quickly approaching an inevitable tipping point.

Apparently, I’m a slow learner, as I was well behind that curve.  I spent 13 years working as an Intelligence Analyst with the Drug Enforcement Administration before resigning last year.  Over the course of that time, I gradually realized that our drug policies only served to enrich and empower the very cartels we were fighting.  I could have kept up the good fight for another 50 years, and the problem would only have been worse as a result of my efforts.

In 2010, while assigned to the DEA office in Monterrey, Mexico, my family was evacuated as a result of the city’s rapidly deteriorating security situation.  As I drove them northward through the desert in a long caravan of heavily-armed Federal Police trucks, trying to comprehend the barbarity plaguing the region, I recalled a wonderful verse from the Tao Te Ching: Give evil nothing to oppose and it will disappear by itself.

That may or may not be a universal truth, but it certainly applies to drug prohibition.  Why did the Zetas want to kill us?  Well, we wanted to kill them.  I’m not suggesting a moral equivalency, but I am suggesting that nearly all of the evils of the drug trade are Frankenstein’s monsters of our own creation.  The violence of the drug world, from drive-by shootings in Chicago to internecine cartel wars in Mexico, is a direct and inevitable consequence of prohibition (see: Capone, Al).  Most overdose deaths are attributable to impurities and inconsistent potency levels of drugs bought on the street—factors that would cease to exist in a regulated legal market.  Most addictions persist because addicts are treated as criminals rather than patients.  And, of course, being arrested for marijuana has destroyed far more lives than the drug itself ever could.

Since leaving the DEA, I am proud to be a speaker with Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP).  LEAP is a non-profit organization comprised of current and former “drug warriors” who have recognized the failure of drug prohibition and now advocate for a policy of regulated legalization.  Our members include retired police chiefs, judges, prosecutors, wardens, detectives, special agents, and others who have the courage to approach the drug policy issue with reason and compassion.

Radley has graciously offered LEAP the opportunity to contribute to The Agitator over the next few weeks.  His offer is greatly appreciated.  With public opinion shifting, Mexico burning, our prisons overflowing, our police militarizing, and needless deaths occurring every day, this is a critical time to address a very critical issue.

Eventually, all wars end.  Some end in victory, some in defeat, and some—particularly in recent years—with the fatigued realization that waging them was a tragic folly from the beginning.  So it is with the war on drugs.

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45 Responses to “At DEA, We Made the Drug Problem Worse, Not Better”

  1. #1 |  frijoles jr | 

    Why did the Zetas want to kill us? Well, we wanted to kill them. I’m not suggesting a moral equivalency, but I am suggesting that nearly all of the evils of the drug trade are Frankenstein’s monsters of our own creation.

    Well said, but I’d take it one step futher and suggest that the Zetas are, in fact morally equivalent to the DEA.

    But congratulations on turning your back on evil. Better late than never.

  2. #2 |  el coronado | 

    “Eventually, all wars end.”

    Drug War started in 1913, and has inexorably ramped up pretty much every year since. 99 fucking _years_, and we’re just now at the point where the discontent is *starting* to appear *a little bit* in alternative media.

    “..[the DEA] could have kept up the good fight for 50 years…” Oh, they will. Watch it happen. This puppy’s throwing off waaay too much money & power in prison-industrial complex coin and police state rampup and ‘seized’ goodies for all the playaz (“Case #1277y338q: U.S. vs. $5,126 in U.S. currency”) to EVAR let it go voluntarily.

  3. #3 |  William Anderson | 

    This is a stunningly great post. I appreciate everything you have said and I only hope that people will listen to what you are saying.

  4. #4 |  Dante | 

    If Americans were 50% opposed to the Drug War, would our government end it?

    No.

    If Americans were 75% opposed to the Drug War, would our government end it?

    No.

    If Americans were 99.99999999% opposed to the Drug War, would our government end it?

    No.

    Why? The Drug War serves our government’s need to control the population, increase it’s budgets and it allows for the degradation of our civil rights under the guise of “saving the children”.

    From a dictator’s point of view, the Drug War is pure genius. The rest of us – not so much.

  5. #5 |  Matt B | 

    Matt B- great post. It is nice to see people finally realizing just how much of a failure the drug war is.

  6. #6 |  Morgan Stone | 

    Thank you for this. It needs said more and more.

  7. #7 |  Suzanne | 

    Why end the war on drugs, when it works SO well with our prisons for profit?! Sickening……many things need to change at the same time

  8. #8 |  JD | 

    You are right, I’m not from the U.S but I can say that what you wrote is true, it does not happen just in the U.S, it happens in all the Americas, and it is the same if you look at it from a civilian’s point of view, it doesn’t have to be in a political way.

  9. #9 |  JD | 

    (I was referring to Dante’s post)

  10. #10 |  Gary Kopycinski | 

    Thank you for this! I am a supporting member of LEAP and encourage others, both members of law enforcement, to join as well.

  11. #11 |  Juice | 

    OT – http://www.sunjournal.com/news/lewiston-auburn/2012/08/03/police-sweep-nabs-three-downtown-lewiston/1232247

    Local state federal police sweep: guy in possession of a gun, suspected prostitute, guy drinking under no drinking sign. The world is safer. Good job, police.

  12. #12 |  Maggie McNeill | 

    Sean, I have applauded LEAP’s work since I first learned of its existence through this very blog, and I think y’all serve a very important function in addressing those who like to pretend that only “druggies” want the madness of drug prohibition to stop. Obviously, y’all have a totally full plate just with this issue, so if the organization has never considered the question I’m about to ask I won’t be surprised.

    Most libertarians recognize that it isn’t just drug prohibitions that are the problem, but the very concept of prohibition itself, the notion that the government can or should ban private, consensual behaviors. Invariably, prohibiting anything causes harm not only to those who partake of the taboo practice, but others who aren’t even involved. We see this in my own field, sex work; prohibition of prostitution pushes it into the shadows and allows exploitation, dishonesty and violence that would not otherwise exist.

    So my question is: is LEAP opposed to all prohibitions, including prohibition of consensual sexual activity? Or are y’all totally (and understandably) concentrated on the drug issue right now?

  13. #13 |  Todd Hunger | 

    Holder was the atty. for big-pharma purdue oxy-contin maker before he was the AG. This fact needs to be widely reported to explain the hands off approach to oxy and the aggressive attack on their competitor, legal medical cannabis a safe and inexpensive ie. no big pharma profit.

  14. #14 |  Jim | 

    Yep, as far as The State is concerned, the Drug War has been an absolutely astounding success. They will NEVER stop.

  15. #15 |  KPRyan | 

    I’m pleased Mr. Dunagan has ‘seen the light’ and is speaking out against this current insanity that is the ‘war on drugs’.

    I’m afraid though that his hopeful interpretation of the polls will not translate to action by the State. As others have mentioned, the State really doesn’t give a damn whether 10% or 50% or 75% of the public now support cannabis legalization… the State wouldn’t care if 75% of the public finally came around and realized EVERY DRUG should be legalized. The State LOVES everything the drug war has brought to America and the world.

    DC now controls local police. Military hardware now becomes used on a domestic basis to fight the drug war. Private prisons generate profits. Public prisons generate profits. Many Americans now earn their livings off the drug war. But best of all, the drug war has allowed the State to further erode individual rights (ones that used to be called ‘Inalienable’), and frighten the populace, just like the ‘war on terrorism’.

    As Jim above states: “… the Drug War has been an absolute astounding success.”

  16. #16 |  Radley Balko | 

    . . . to explain the hands off approach to oxy . . .

    There has been a hands-off approach to Oxy?

  17. #17 |  Resistance | 

    HOLY CRAP! That might be the single most refreshing, and uplifting article I’ve read on the interwebs, EVER!

    Unfortunately, I agree with el coronado… There’s too much power and money wrapped-up in the Prison Industrial Complex for them to just “let go.” Not to mention Law Enforcement and the advancement of the Police State and the Prison Industrial Complex is this generation’s version of the WPA, and we’re still in the grip of The Next Great Depression…

  18. #18 |  Bergman | 

    Better late than never, but…

    Why is it that so many of the authority figures coming to this realization only do so after retiring, when their opinion will have the same impact any citizen’s opinion has (individually negligible)? Coming to this opinion while still in office could have an immense effect – but why is that so rare?

    Better late than never. But better early than late.

  19. #19 |  Ariel | 

    You do know the if “75% opposed, etc.” is just hyperbole. If 75% of this country voted no more, the prohibition would end. The problem is that they don’t, not only because there aren’t enough that would and neither party fronts a candidate, local, state, or federal, that goes on that platform.

  20. #20 |  leap supporter | 

    “Why is it that so many of the authority figures coming to this realization only do so after retiring, when their opinion will have the same impact any citizen’s opinion has (individually negligible)? Coming to this opinion while still in office could have an immense effect – but why is that so rare?”

    Former Mohave County Probation Officer Files Lawsuit After Being Fired for Supporting Marijuana Decriminalization

    http://www.acluaz.org/issues/free-speech/2011-11/1475

  21. #21 |  BamBam | 

    You do know the if “75% opposed, etc.” is just hyperbole. If 75% of this country voted no more, the prohibition would end.

    Highly unlikely. Power does not cede because people ask, in any manner. Voting is one of them. I have often pondered if 99% of people stopped voting, would it matter? I conclude that it would not, as I doubt there are minimum voter turnout laws to make a voted on item binding. Even if there were, results would still be published stating believable numbers so as not to raise suspicions. (e.g. “96% of people in count X voted”, when there is a typical turnout of 30%). There is no way for voters to truly verify how many people voted, so any numbers can be published. Not enough people even give a damn, so any attempt at verification won’t occur.

    The game continues until The State is toppled. Then another game will take its place, as the idiot masses pray for another .gov savior. I can only hope that there is a length period between the 2 where I may experience something much closer to liberty than at any other point in my life. What we have in the 20th and 21st century is not freedom, but rather slavery with a soft velvet glove so it FEELS good.

  22. #22 |  (B)oscoH, Yogurt Eater | 

    First of all, I am not a psychologist, but I think that the current drug war might be a result of a lot of kids in the 80s and 90s being told to “just say no” and taught slogans like “hugs not drugs”. They feel as if users and providers are drugs just weren’t listening, and that’s when their violent instincts take over. Now obviously, I’m not saying that everyone who didn’t do a little blow is responsible for 50K dead Mexicans, but some of them get involved in the war on drugs, and we get this tragedy.

  23. #23 |  Terry H. | 

    Sean, thank you for this piece. For so long, I’ve been pointing out to my friends that all the things they consider “bad” about drugs are simply a result of prohibition and not of the drugs themselves. Late or not, I give you credit for realizing pure folly when you see it and taking action.

  24. #24 |  GÄC | 

    Sean, I have to tip my hat to you. It takes a very strong believe in your philosophy to walk away from job like that. I’m also a fed employee, but work in an area where I still feel that I can make a difference in the way the government operates (I work for an Inspector General). In recent months I’ve been questioning the good I do – yes I save the government money through my work, but then they just spend it on something else. I hope that when reach the tipping point, I also have the strength to walk away…

  25. #25 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    The thing that baffles me about the debate over drug laws is that both sides seem to assume that any change in the laws will necessarily be permanent. Why? Why should we not talk about making changes, and then when we see what happens, making more?

  26. #26 |  AlgerHiss | 

    Is Jerry Mitchell, at the Mississippi Clarion Ledger, wishing to expand the “drug war”?

    http://www.clarionledger.com/article/20120803/NEWS/120803006/Sunday-Exclusive-Mississippi-s-growing-prescription-drug-abuse-problem?odyssey=mod%7Cbreaking%7Ctext%7CHome

  27. #27 |  Ted S. | 

    Over the course of that time, I gradually realized that our drug policies only served to enrich and empower the very cartels we were fighting. I could have kept up the good fight for another 50 years,

    This is the problem: It’s not the good fight. It’s the morally wicked fight.

  28. #28 |  the other rob | 

    I sometimes wonder whether foreign drug cartels employ lobbyists in DC to oppose any relaxation of prohibition.

    It seems logical that they would, perhaps through a cutout or two.

  29. #29 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    There is a cause of the drug war that I don’t see much discussed here; the people left behind by those who commit suicide-by-drug-addiction. Someone they loved has either died or turned into something awful. They don’t want to believe that the person they loved was a bad person, so they blame the drugs, and by extension those who sell them. They don’t want to listen to the argument that freedom includes the freedom to be monumentally stupid.

    This is a permanent pro-drug-war lobby that is not ever going away. I disagree with them. I think that they are harming our society. But I cannot blame them, and I think that somebody who could must be a sonofabitch. If we want to end the stupidities of the War on Drugs, we need to do something that will allow these people at least some of the catharsis and closure that backing the War on Drugs brought them.

  30. #30 |  tim stevens | 

    i’ll do my patriotic part by REFUSING to convict anyone charged with possession, delivery, use, sale, purchase or anything else related with unapproved, illegal, or designer-created chemicals and drugs.

    “but what there were also charges of murder, assault, theft etc. along with the drug charges?” same thing. anything illegal drug-related i’ll treat like the courts treat a bad search. all evidence is tainted.

    BTW, i feel the same way about anyone who steals from the government – just spreading the wealth.

  31. #31 |  Dwight Brown | 

    “Eventually, all wars end.”

    Obligatory:

    “You can’t even call this shit a war.”
    “Why not?”
    “Wars end. ”
    -Carver to Hauck, “The Wire”, episode 1

  32. #32 |  Fascist Nation | 

    WHAT ARE YOU NUTS!!!! The war on drugs has been a huge success. Just like the war on poverty. And the war on everyone else.

    But just speaking of drugs; trillions of dollars have been looted over the past 40 years, trillions of dollars redistributed over the past 40 years, millions of people incarcerated for little cost other than redistributing some stolen loot to people who work for us, and those in prison and on parole forming an important slave labor tasked to do menial labor, incredible amounts of property have been stolen either for our direct use or to sell to our cronies for incredible profits, and a whole slew of law, regulations, procedures and paperwork to employ millions more in our service as well as keep the masses in line. Further our own drug sales have been made far more profitable than anyone could have ever imagined. And besides people who work for us, there are other useful tools who terrorize the masses that have proven useful in eliminating anyone whom would question this enterprise. Overall, I personally would consider this drug war to be the most profitable and useful feature any government has ever conceived.

    Hope you recover form this delusion soon, and anytime you would like to come back to useful employment you know who to call.

    Sincerely,

    Harry Anslinger

  33. #33 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    Interesting thought; while the markets for heroin, cocaine, and other refined (in the sense that oil is refined, not socially) drugs wouldn’t take that big a hit, if Marijuana was generally legalized local production would be practical. Even user-grown, for that matter. As I understand it (and please correct me if I’m wrong) the plants thrive all over North America – at least those parts that are not permanently frozen. The stuff is also fairly hardy, so that it can resist the black thumb of all but the most ham-handed would-be growers.

    Some questions occur;

    1) Would professional growing be all that widespread?

    2) Would taxation actually net much?

    3) Would the ‘drug cartels’ that are currently supposed (according to the Drug War narrative) the main suppliers of the black market take a significant hit on income?

    Anybody have any ideas?

  34. #34 |  Articles for Sunday » Scott Lazarowitz's Blog | 

    […] Sean Dunagan: At DEA, We Made the Drug Problem Worse, Not Better […]

  35. #35 |  liberranter | 

    @#28: I doubt the cartels need to employ any lobbyists in Rome-on-the-Potomac, City of Whores. The politicos already realize the value that these cartels provide as a pretext for maintaining and expanding their own power, and the cartels certainly are aware that Prohibition is what sustains their immense profits. In other words, the relationship between the cartels and Congress is a symbiotic one, with neither side needing to bribe or coerce the other into making a mutually beneficial deal.

  36. #36 |  M. Simon | 

    Here is another example of the enemies of civilization supporting their fight against civilization with a tool of “civilization’s” own making.

    http://classicalvalues.com/2012/08/terrorists-dealing-drugs/

    Some people don’t understand the difference between crime and vice and why you need to fight crime and deal with vice one on one.

  37. #37 |  M. Simon | 

    …the relationship between the cartels and Congress is a symbiotic one, with neither side needing to bribe or coerce the other into making a mutually beneficial deal.

    None the less the bribery goes on. Think of it as insurance.

    “The Latin American drug cartels have stretched their tentacles much deeper into our lives than most people believe. It’s possible they are calling the shots at all levels of government.” – William Colby, former CIA Director, 1995

  38. #38 |  Militant Libertarian » At DEA, We Made the Drug Problem Worse, Not Better | 

    […] by Sean Dunagan, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (Agitator) […]

  39. #39 |  Dissident News Update August 7, 2012 « Attack the System | 

    […] At DEA, We Made the Drug Problem Worse, Not Better by Sean Dunagan The Agitator […]

  40. #40 |  Classical Values » DEA Agent – We Made Things Worse | 

    […] The Agitator has the story. The war on drugs has failed. Its failure has been so categorical and self-evident that the statement itself is bromidic. By any reasonable metric of success—addiction rates, violence, the availability of drugs in our schools— it’s clear that our 40-year jihad against certain plants and chemicals has done far more harm than good. Despite this, the federal government’s drug war strategy, which is founded upon aggressive law enforcement and mass incarceration, remains unchanged. We continue to arrest nearly a million people a year for marijuana offenses. We remain the world’s leading jailer, with an incarceration rate more than five times the global average. And this year, the federal government will spend nearly $4 billion more on drug law enforcement and interdiction than it will on drug treatment. […]

  41. #41 |  amber | 

    i don’t feel any of this is going to get better we are just going to end up waging war on ourselves the people against the government the people in office say they want what best for us but they have no freakin clue what that is non of them listen when we speak now were speaking in unison and in groups that are growing larger every day do they hear us no and the more of us who are pro rights the more of us get labeled terrorist or radicals even if our motives are pure were just trying to better our life and the life of fellow Americans and even if we are proud of our country were still at risk of being jailed for speaking out for what is blataniby obviously the right thing to do but our government inset really known for doing whats right. we could pay off the national debt within 20 years if we legalized marijuana across the us and only used the tax of of those sales to recover our nat, debt but nope lets keep going under we are becoming a laughing stock to other countries and why not look at what OUR leaders have done to the place, like a bull in a china cabinet shit went to hell in a hand basket.. good luck with your fight for our rights us rednecks and hillbillies are with you.. amber faustine proud Human,wife and mother…

  42. #42 |  stray | 

    This garbage cracks me up. In 1970 my mom and I watched one of those “Drug specials” about what drugs are, how to avoid them and what you should do.
    My mom asked me afterward, “What do you know about drugs?”
    I said, “Drive me to any place that you want and I’ll buy drugs within 5 minutes.”
    My mother’s reply was, “Oh, you’re just trying to show off. I don’t believe you!”
    Bury your head in the sand and ignore it. It’s the American way!
    Now 42 years later, here we are. LOL

  43. #43 |  Exposing the Drug War’s Horrors in Mexico and the U.S. | The Agitator | 

    […] shoes of former DEA intelligence analyst Sean Dunagan, last week’s LEAP blogger, whose posts on how the DEA made the drug war worse rather than better, the government’s own admissions that the drug war creates violence and how the drug war has […]

  44. #44 |  Creating the Crisis « The Honest Courtesan | 

    […] experience viewed through a skewed “law and order” filter; take a look at the stories of the LEAP members Radley Balko has guest blogging on The Agitator right now and you’ll see what I mean.  These […]

  45. #45 |  Hope Jentis | 

    Drugs
    By: Hope

    All they wanted was a little fun
    Those bootleggers of old.
    So what, if they carried a gun
    And got a little bold.
    Eventually they won their war
    And liquor was legalized.
    Then thugs like Al Capone and more
    Were practically canonized!

    Now after fifty years or more
    Another war’s declared.
    The procedure’s repeated just as before
    But this time no one’s spared.
    Their determination to win this time is a flaw
    Of the human condition.
    But all it proves to those in awe
    Is: WE LEARNED NOTHING FROM PROHIBITION!

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