Last year, the Drug Enforcement Agency's marijuana eradication program confiscated 5.3 million marijuana plants in operations nationwide, a 20 percent increase from the year before and by far the heaviest haul since President Obama's first term in office. The DEA pulled 3.5 million plants in California, more than any other state by a long shot, even as Californians voted to legalize cannabis for recreational use.
The DEA still spends millions of dollars every year aggressively searching rural communities for marijuana grown outside the law.
Most of the plants were confiscated from outdoor plots, and there's little doubt that expensive helicopter rides, tactical gear and backwoods excursions were needed to find them. Agents seized some $52 million in weed and assets, but that won't make much of a dent in a market worth $53 billion a year. Marijuana legalization has spread to states across the country and enjoys the support of a majority of voters. However, the DEA still spends millions of dollars every year aggressively searching rural communities for marijuana grown outside the law.
Now that marijuana is legal for recreational use in eight states and as a medicine in 29, the mass marijuana eradication program may seem like a drug war relic and a waste of taxpayer dollars. Yet the media hardly noticed when the DEA released the results of its 2016 eradication campaign earlier this month. Meanwhile, the DEA would soon be making headlines over another type of drug that authorities have spent decades trying to control: opioids.
The Washington Post and "60 Minutes" published a high-profile series of reports this week featuring Joseph Rannazzisi, a former DEA official. Rannazzisi blamed a law passed by Congress in 2016 for robbing his division of its best weapon for disrupting the supply of prescription painkillers fueling the nation's opioid woes. Fingers pointed at Rep. Tom Marino, a Pennsylvania Republican who championed the legislation despite opposition from the DEA and a spat with Rannazzisi, who resigned under pressure from Marino and other lawmakers.
Marino also happened to be President Trump's nominee for director of the National Office on Drug Control Policy, a position commonly known as "drug czar." Marino's nomination was already controversial, and Trump is currently under fire for doing little to address the opioid epidemic despite tough talk on the campaign trail. On Tuesday, Trump announced that Marino was withdrawing his nomination.
Rannazzisi, who is now a consultant for attorneys suing pharmaceutical companies over their role in the overdose epidemic, said the 2016 legislation made it harder for the DEA to justify crackdowns on companies distributing painkillers to areas where agents believe the drugs are diverted to people without prescriptions. The pharmaceutical industry pushed hard for the legislation and lined Marino's pockets with $100,000 in donations. The bill sailed through Congress and was signed by President Obama.
It's no secret that Big Pharma spends more on lobbying than any other industry, or that pharmaceutical companies have profited from rising rates of opioid misuse over the past two decades. Democrats in Congress have already pounced on the news and are pushing for a repeal of Marino's 2016 legislation, but experts say lawmakers should be looking much deeper into the issue. The DEA has always sought to cut off access to drugs at their source, and if its marijuana and opioid campaigns are any evidence, those efforts have failed.
The DEA has been attacking the supply of illegal opioids for decades, but drugs continue to be readily available.
Sanho Tree, director of drug policy at the Institute for Policy Studies, said that opioids and addiction reflect complex social and public health challenges, but the DEA's answer has always been to get "a bigger hammer" because everything looks like a nail.
"[DEA agents] only have a once-size-fits-all solution, which is 'how much more force do we have to assert [there to] get our results,'" Tree said in an interview.
Tree said the problem with the Washington Post's story is that it paints the DEA as a hero in the effort to combat opioid addiction, even as it's becoming increasingly clear that drug problems are not solved by relying on law enforcement to make arrests and cut off the supply. The DEA has been attacking the supply of illegal opioids -- and marijuana, for that matter -- for decades, but drugs continue to be readily available in every corner of the United States.
A community does not automatically recover from opioids simply because the DEA cuts a corrupt doctor or pharmacy off from a supplier. Opioid addiction often requires medical treatment, and when people with opioid disorders can no longer access prescription painkillers, they are likely to turn to dangerous street drugs like heroin and fentanyl, particularly in areas where painkillers created a black market in the first place, according to Tree.
"The simplistic DEA solution, which is just cut off the supply and prohibit use, is really shortsighted," Tree said. "But that's how they've always operated."
Tree said that solving the opioid problem requires taking a "cold hard look" at why so many people decide to self-medicate with painkillers in the first place. Many areas hard hit by opioid misuse lack economic opportunity and health care options.
"If you overlay a map where Trump did well, and where the opioid crisis is hitting hardest, there is a pretty stunning correlation," said Tree, adding that regions such as Appalachia that have suffered from declines in manufacturing tend to have high rates of opioid misuse. "Opioids are a very effective way of numbing your pain and reliving, if you will, your past days or better days."
Tree said public dollars should go to drug misuse treatment and prevention before anything else. With support from President Obama, Congress allocated nearly $1 billion in 2016 for combating the opioid epidemic over a two-year period, largely through grants to expand access to treatment and recovery services. The Trump administration is now in charge of handing out a large chunk of the money, even though its policy toward opioids is still taking shape.
Under pressure to respond to the criticism flying around his former drug czar nominee, Trump has promised to declare the opioid epidemic a "national emergency" and roll out policy objectives by next week. He has made similar promises in the past, but has so far failed to keep them.
As long as marijuana remains illegal under federal law, the DEA will fly helicopters across the countryside in search of secret plots.
Trump must also find someone to replace Marino and the chief of the DEA, who stepped down in September over disagreements with the White House. These picks could have lasting impacts on how the government responds to drugs, and the Trump administration has already indicated that it prefers an alarmingly authoritarian approach.
If the policies rolling out under Trump's attorney general, Jeff Sessions, are any indication, it appears that law enforcement will still have plenty of resources to continue waging a dangerous war on the supply chain. Trump has also supported large cuts to Medicaid and is working to undermine the Affordable Care Act, which expanded access to addiction treatment for millions of people.
Ultimately, it will take acts of Congress to defang the DEA and push the government toward public health solutions to the nation's drug dilemmas. As long as marijuana remains illegal under federal law, the DEA will fly helicopters across the countryside in search of secret plots, even in states where the drug is legal. As long as budgets are stretched to support the drug warriors in law enforcement, taxpayer dollars will go to making arrests instead of health care and economic initiatives that help people and communities stay healthy and whole.
"What does it take to build a healthy individual and healthy society?" Tree said. "That's the deeper question."