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Originally published Wednesday, September 11, 2013 at 4:08 PM

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Guest: Is it time to get rid of the DEA?

Congress should consider merging the scandal-plagued DEA with the FBI, writes guest columnist Bill Piper.

Special to The Times

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THIS year is the 40th anniversary of the Drug Enforcement Administration. Already plagued by scandals, the agency has recently been revealed to be collaborating with the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency to spy on unsuspecting Americans. More than 120 groups from across the political spectrum and around the globe have called on Congress to hold hearings on the DEA.

There is no doubt the agency should be reformed. It is also worth asking if it should continue to exist.

According to a Reuters investigation, the DEA has been gathering information from other agencies, as well as foreign governments, for years. The DEA has also been collecting its own arsenal of data; constructing a massive database with about 1 billion records.

This information is shared in secret. By hiding the origins of its data from defense attorneys, prosecutors and judges, the agency and its partners effectively are undermining the right of the people it targets to a fair trial.

According to The New York Times the DEA even has unlimited access to an AT&T database of all calls passing through its phones and switches. Under the Hemisphere Project, the U.S. government pays AT&T to place its employees inside the DEA, so that the DEA can use these experts to gain access to decades of detailed records of U.S. citizens’ phone calls.

Then there’s the DEA’s disregard for science. It obstructed a formal request to reschedule marijuana for 16 years. After being forced by the courts to make a decision, the agency declared marijuana to have no medical value, despite massive evidence to the contrary.

The agency’s own administrative law judge held two years of hearings and concluded marijuana in its natural form is “one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man” and should be made available for medical use. Similar hearings on MDMA, aka ecstasy, concluded it has important medical uses, but the DEA again overruled its administrative law judge.

There is a robust supply of other DEA debacles. The Department of Justice’s “Fast and Furious” scandal exposed DEA agents who smuggled or laundered millions of dollars in profits for illegal drug organizations as part of an ongoing sting operation.

Many DEA agents are hardworking everyday people who put their lives on the line for the sake of what they believe to be the greater good. However, they are doing this in the face of systemic mismanagement and corruption that make even their best intentions futile.

Congress could make some helpful reforms, such as changing the incentive structure for DEA agents in order to discourage the worst offenders.

Recently, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said, “As the so-called war on drugs enters its fifth decade, we need to ask whether it, and the approaches that comprise it, have been truly effective. ...

“Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities.”

This admission of failure by our nation’s highest-ranking law-enforcement official has fortified a platform to challenge the drug war. The DEA is a major force powering this destructive machine.

Three presidential administrations — Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton — have conducted reviews of whether it would be more efficient and better for public safety to basically do away with the DEA and merge it with the FBI, but Congress has never seriously explored the issue.

In fact, it’s remarkable how little federal oversight or scrutiny there has been. With an annual budget of more than $2 billion as well as significant discretionary powers, the DEA certainly merits a top-to-bottom review of its operations, expenditures and actions.

Once we finally get a good look under the hood, we will surely find a corroded and ineffective collection of parts that very likely need to go.

Bill Piper is the director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. Website: www.drugpolicy.org


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