Before I started using medical marijuana in 1994, the acronym “DEA,” which stands for Drug Enforcement Administration, meant little to me.
But by the time I drove to the heavily-guarded, twin-towered DEA headquarters building across from the Pentagon in Northern Virginia several weeks ago, I viewed the DEA as a terrifying symbol of the drug war ? a quasi-military US Department of Justice agency with a $1.5 billion budget and 9,200 employees, dedicated to stopping people from producing, delivering or using a handful of drugs deemed illegal for geopolitical, cultural and economic reasons.
You can’t easily get into the DEA headquarters. A solid steel roadplate rose up to block my car when I tried to park in the DEA’s small visitor parking lot, then I had to get past a metal detector and guard station inside headquarters’ front door.
The DEA’s precautions are justified. Many DEA employees work undercover infiltrating marijuana, opium or cocaine cartels. They pretend to befriend people, then they bust them. People who’ve been set up seek revenge, and anti-government “extremists” also target the DEA.
A truck bomb exploded outside Oklahoma City’s Alfred P Murrah Federal Building in April, 1995, killing several DEA agents and contract workers. In 1974, agents and female clerical workers were killed when a Miami DEA building collapsed. In 1990, the Fort Myers, Florida DEA office was bombed. A Wall of Honor graces the headquarters lobby, memorializing dozens of agents killed in the line of duty.
Why would anyone want such a dangerous job?
Sean Fearns, the director of the DEA’s museum, told me he joined the DEA because it was a good career move, and because he believes “illegal drugs are a terrible threat to society.”
I spoke to Fearns inside his small museum while a television crew from the BBC filmed a drug war report nearby. The BBC finds the DEA intriguing and exciting; it has already aired a series on the agency.
Fearns was impeccably dressed and articulate.
“I volunteer for the Boy Scouts,” he told me. “Four or five years ago, a kid in our troop was on his way to becoming an Eagle Scout. Then he dropped out of school, got kicked out of his house, and disappeared. Later, I read in the Washington Post that he’d been gunned down, along with some other teenagers, in the middle of a drug buy. It was the first person I personally knew who’d had problems with drugs. It made me realize that drugs are a big temptation. That’s a big part of why I work here.”
The DEA museum has been open since May 1999, Fearns said, but its origin traces back to 1976, when an agent found a bundle of agents’ badges dating back to the prohibition agencies that preceded the DEA.
“The museum is a public relations tool, but it’s also a teaching tool,” Fearns explained. “Ninety percent of this exhibit comes from artifacts provided by retired agents. We have a dozen retired agents and civilian employees as volunteers. They conduct tours, and add real life drama to what we offer. Two of our volunteers were involved in the French Connection case; one of them was a consultant to the movie. Our volunteers can tell you how they infiltrated a Colombian cartel and arrested 50 people after being in a gun battle in Bogota. That’s why we have security concerns here ? our people have brought down a lot of dangerous criminals and cost them a lot of money. The public needs to see beyond those who are hypercritical of the drug war, and see that our people have been killed trying to protect America.”
From Harry to heroin
As the museum’s exhibits make clear, narcotics and marijuana were totally legal in the US until the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 and subsequent laws. In 1915, drug agents seized 44 pounds of opium. In 1916, the US Supreme Court ruled that the government had no right to regulate drugs or drug users. Narcotics officers arrested hundreds of addicts anyway; the Supreme Court ordered their release from prison, but the Treasury Department refused to return money taken from the wrongly convicted prisoners.
Today’s DEA claims a direct link to the early 1900’s, when America first began criminalizing inert substances and their users. In 1920, alcohol prohibition birthed a Prohibition Unit controlled by the Bureau of Internal Revenue. In 1927, Congress created the Bureau of Prohibition. In 1930, it created the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, headed by Harry Anslinger.
For three decades, Anslinger demonized marijuana while directing domestic and international efforts against plant drugs. He had an indelible effect on drug policy because he was instrumental in getting the United States and 108 other countries to sign the 1961 “Single Convention” treaty (amended and expanded in 1971) outlawing marijuana and many other drugs.
Just before Anslinger died in 1975, he assured interviewers that the treaty could not be altered or nullified without consent of all its signatories, and that the US Supreme Court is the only avenue through which America could unilaterally exit the treaty. Noting that conservatives who routinely uphold drug war precedents control the Supreme Court, some legal scholars agree with Anslinger’s contention that even if all 50 American states and its federal government legalized marijuana, treaties would still require the US to maintain marijuana prohibition.
Accumulation of power
Anslinger was forced to resign in 1962, but America continued its war on consciousness-raising drugs, especially LSD, mushrooms, peyote and pot, creating the Bureau of Drug Abuse Control that year and the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs in 1968. After disregarding a report acknowledging that marijuana was a relatively harmless drug, President Richard Nixon created the DEA by executive order in 1973. Soon afterwards, Nixon was forced from office for covering up criminal activities that threatened the constitutional structure of the US government.
In 1974, a White House study concluded that marijuana had little potential for abuse and harm, and instructed the DEA to stop focusing on marijuana smugglers. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter’s attorney general discussed abolishing the DEA. Carter himself proposed decriminalizing marijuana, but the DEA ignored increasing tolerance of marijuana and mounted extensive anti-cannabis operations, such as Operation Stopgap (from 1975-78 which seized a million pounds of pot), and Operations Black Tuna, Banco, and Tiburon (from 1979 to 1982) which netted billions of dollars worth of Colombian Gold, boats, airplanes and cash, and resulted in hundreds of arrests.
During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the agency teamed with the FBI, CIA, and US military, primarily in operations against international marijuana and cocaine cartels. DEA agent Kiki Camerana, based in Guadalajara, Mexico in 1985, helped the Mexican government destroy ten thousand tons of high-grade sinsemilla. Camarena was then kidnapped, tortured and murdered by Mexicans. The US response to his death, which included kidnapping Mexicans so they could be put on trial in American courts, caused cross-border friction.
DEA activities in Latin American countries were termed “US imperialism” by foreign critics, who often cite a DEA-sponsored 1989 coup that resulted in Panamanian president Manuel Noriega being kidnapped by force from Panama and put on trial in the United States.
Despite such criticism, Congress gave the DEA increased authority for international operations, and also funded a DEA air force ? a sophisticated $25 million Texas-based “Air Wing” with a hundred planes capable of specialized surveillance, interdiction, and photography.
No matter how many drugs seized, no matter how many arrests, DEA officials relentlessly insist that “drug use continues to skyrocket,” and that the primary way to combat it is by giving more funding and power to the DEA!
Soon after its creation, the agency began writing legislation that was rubber stamped by Congress, legislation that gives the DEA authority over domestic and international manufacturers, prescribers or retailers of pharmaceutical drugs, chemicals, and steroids.
To counter grassroots drug policy reformers, the DEA teamed with President Reagan, his wife Nancy, and George Bush, to create anti-reform “parents’ groups,” a “demand reduction program” that tells people all illegal drugs are dangerous, and expensive programs attacking money laundering and steroids, along with harmless chemicals that can be used to make methamphetamine and “club drugs”.
Today, the DEA’s fingerprints are everywhere ? in South American mountain villages where US poison and genetically engineered bioweapons rain from the sky, in American pharmacies inspected by DEA agents, in schools and communities where the DEA infiltrates classrooms and local law enforcement agencies.
The DEA has also increased the suffering of medical marijuana patients. In 1988, the agency’s administrative law judge correctly ruled that marijuana had legitimate medical uses and was relatively harmless. In 1989, DEA boss Jack Lawn threw out the judge’s ruling.
The DEA museum’s “history of drugs” ignores centuries of holistic use of plant-based medicines, and alleges that America has had a series of “drug epidemics,” the first of which began in the 1850’s and lasted until 1914.
Later “epidemics” began during the 1960’s, when the anti-war counterculture adopted marijuana and hallucinogens as sacraments, and during the 1970’s and 80’s, when cocaine and meth became profit items for domestic gangs supplied by international cadres exporting megatons of dope to the US. During the 1990’s, new “epidemics” have started, involving ecstasy, GHB, and other designer drugs.
According to DEA exhibits, the earliest epidemic somehow started with British-Chinese opium wars in the 1840’s, and spread to America in the form of “patent medicines” and doctors who prescribed the “little syringe for every ache and pain.”
Plexiglas-encased exhibits contain boxes of cocaine toothache medicine, newspaper ads for heroin-aspirin tablets that treat asthma, bronchitis and hay fever, tinctures of cannabis, morphine, opium.
The alleged early epidemic occurred alongside rampant industrialization, urban squalor, child labor, slavery, the Civil War, environmental destruction, robber barons, and genocide of Native Americans. Most historians do not believe that opiates, coca, and marijuana were a major American social problem in the 19th century. They note that factions in the temperance movement seeking to ban alcohol felt that drugs like marijuana and coca could safely be used instead of alcohol.
Yet, the people who scripted the DEA’s museum claim that the legal availability of plant drugs, herbal elixirs, and narcotics-providing doctors during the early 1900’s was a problem of supreme national importance.
The exhibit says the “typical addict” at the turn of the century was a white middle-class woman hooked on morphine by her doctor, similar to a woman portrayed by actress Dorothy Davenport in the 1923 movie Human Wreckage. Further, the exhibit contends, a new class of “young, urban pleasure-seekers” rose up in the 1920’s, hell-bent on using drugs for purely recreational purposes. Pictures of morphine smuggled from Turkey (disguised as furs and seized by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in the 1920’s) are combined with warnings about a “new drug” arriving on the scene: marijuana.
The museum’s presentation gives credence to marijuana advocates’ contention that cannabis prohibition was the result of Anslinger’s need to provide employment for out-of-work alcohol prohibition agents, coupled with racist attitudes against Asians, Hispanics and blacks.
The exhibits unquestioningly assert that Chinese immigrant railroad workers introduced opium to the United States, that Southwestern governors worried about immigrant Mexicans using “locoweed,” and that “jazz rebels” and “hepsters” experienced a “tragic introduction to the world of heroin addiction” because they smoked marijuana!
Jazz legend Charlie Parker is blamed for leading his fans to use heroin, and Mezz Mezzrow, a white jazz musician, is credited with single-handedly introducing marijuana to Harlem in 1929.
The museum’s historians do not question Anslinger’s creation of the reefer madness myth, which claimed that the plant inherently caused rape, addiction, traffic accidents and murder, and that legions of “pushers” were fanning out across America, hooking innocent kids on “the devil’s weed.” Anslinger later disavowed many reefer madness assertions, but not before gutting America’s once-vibrant hemp industry, which had been supplying North Americans with valuable food, fiber, medicine, and industrial products since the 1600’s.
Fearns gave a brief guided tour, then left me on my own to study exhibits, take pictures and chat with the tall, beautiful, blonde woman working in the museum’s gift shop, which featured DEA toys, shirts, hats, books, and badges.
Also featured was a garishly painted Harley Davidson motorcycle seized from the president of a Massachusetts motorcycle gang that sold drugs from a heavily-guarded bunker on a dead end street, guarded by surveillance cameras and pit bulls. Behind the bike were wall decorations ? including a letter from a young girl so upset about drug use that she assisted DEA in busting people in her small South Carolina hometown.
Other exhibits chronicle the Beat Generation’s contribution to the drug counterculture: photos and commentary critical of William Burroughs, Timothy Leary and Jack Kerouac are followed by a photo of a long-haired entrepreneur selling bongs on a street corner in Washington, DC.
A pair of huge, green snakeskin shoes worn by an undercover agent who infiltrated the Detroit music scene in 1970 is accompanied by the agent’s statement: “I wore these shoes with bellbottoms and a wild rayon shirt. I had long hair and hung out with these guys six, seven, eight months before I put them all away.”
Part of the agency’s extensive paraphernalia collection is on display. It includes beautiful hand-crafted pipes, bongs, roach clips, and hookahs, as well as the infamous “ICE-O 2” hash oil “isolator,” a large silver-colored device that would be more at home in a Star Trek movie than in a stoner’s living room.
The DEA’s disdain for the “middle class drug subculture” and 60’s radicalism is evident in its depiction of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and peaceniks, as well as in textual comments asserting that 60’s drug use “caused a dramatic negative impact on society, bringing increase in crime, erosion of values and degradation of entire communities.”
The museum’s overall tone combines dissonant themes. One theme is macho and macabre, embodying a swashbuckling world of pot-laden smuggling planes, gun battles, good (DEA) versus evil (drug traffickers and users), bloodied bodies of dead drug traffickers and valiant DEA martyrs. The exhibit even contains a compact disc of a “Mexican Narcomusic” band called “Grupo Exterminato” that “glorifies drug criminals with ballad songs.”
The museum’s other theme is that America is under siege ? flooded with drugs, plagued by drug users’ desire for drugs. Somehow, even though the DEA claims to be a sophisticated, effective agency, drug use is as prevalent as it has ever been, if not moreso.
Perhaps there’s a success disincentive built in to the entire drug war equation. If the DEA actually “won” its war, it would need to be downsized, and thousands of well-paid employees would have to get jobs elsewhere. Viewed from the perspective of job security, failure is success.
“Marijuana: always with us”
That’s the title of a section in a DEA publication, and the agency has zealously continued Anslinger’s war against weed. The DEA began its Domestic Cannabis Eradication and Suppression Program (DCE/SP) in 1979 in Hawaii and California; today, all 50 states participate in the program, which costs tens of millions of dollars annually.
DEA literature complains that outdoor cannabis growers cause environmental damage using poisons and otherwise harming indigenous flora, but the same literature proudly proclaims that the agency’s 1990 “Operation Wipe Out in Hawaii” used poisons to eradicate 90% of Hawaii’s outdoor buds. In Oklahoma and Texas, The DEA spent a month killing 714 gardens containing 40,000 specially bred sinsemilla plants on the banks of the Red River.
After growers moved to indoor gardens and began developing sophisticated botanical skills and precursors to stabilized, high-potency strains now sold by Marc Emery and other seedmeisters, the DEA’s Operation Green Merchant moved in on Holland’s famous Seed Bank and on the American hydroponics industry in 1989.
Many people busted by Green Merchant were told by the DEA that they had come to the agency’s attention solely because they advertised in High Times magazine, or because a subpoena had been served on the magazine.
The DEA developed infrared radar to detect “unusual heat signatures” generated by indoor grow rooms, and began busting massive indoor cultivation set-ups like Northern California’s “Advance Mine” site, a series of mining caves containing 5 tons of grow equipment and $6 million worth of marijuana.
The agency’s one-time seizure tallies are impressive: it took down 389,113 pounds of herb in Miami in 1988, scored 75,000 pounds of hash in San Fran that same year, confiscated 4,260,000 pounds of pot during one Mexican bust in 1984, and ripped off 290,400 pounds of hashish in Mexico in 1995. By contrast, the DEA’s biggest heroin seizure ever was only 2,816 pounds.
Stats for 1999 indicate that the DEA and its affiliates “eradicated” 3.5 million outdoor plants and 208,000 indoor plants, while arresting 12,000 people and seizing $2.7 million in assets.
Just a few months ago, the DEA completed a two-year bust of 120 FedEx employees and associates, who had shipped 121 tons of reefer through the FedEx system, using fake labels, bribes and overnight delivery of more than 4,000 cannabis packages.
The agency sponsors forums teaching cops, parents, and community groups how to fight medical marijuana and drug policy reform. Its website features an anti-pot book for teenagers called Get It Straight. The book says marijuana causes people to have “difficulty understanding simple ideas,” and also causes “lung cancer” and immune system deficiencies.
If you smoke marijuana, the DEA asserts, you will be “unable to perform tasks requiring concentration, like driving, swimming, playing sports, reading and writing.”
How odd, I thought, while reading Get it Straight. I am a medical marijuana patient with serious spinal injuries. I’m also an ocean swimmer who writes, reads, concentrates, and swims after smoking marijuana.
Is it possible that DEA also stand for “Dishonest Education Agency?”
The DEA’s “Association of Former Federal Narcotics Agents” publishes a history of the DEA that reveals more about the agency’s flaws and the drug war’s contradictions than the former agents likely intended.
In the published history are short autobiographies of agents who died trying to keep people from making, selling or using drugs. The first casualty was a federal alcohol prohibition agent killed by Mexican whiskey smugglers in 1921. In 1922, Narcotics Inspector Burt Gregory was killed when his own gun accidentally discharged. In 1924, 25-year-old Agent James Williams was accidentally killed by another agent’s gun; it was William’s first assignment. Agent James Brown, who was known for impersonating Mexican women during undercover ops, was killed by an opium trafficker in 1928.
Inspector Spencer Stafford died in 1935, killed by a Texas sheriff. Mansel Burrell, one of few African-Americans depicted in the DEA DOA list, died in 1967 at age 23. Agent Eugene McCarthy was killed in Saudi Arabia in a helicopter accident. Detective Stephen Struel, a Missouri police officer working with a DEA anti-pot team, Charles Bassing, an Arkansas State Police officer, and fellow Arkansas officers James Avant and Kevin Brosch, are among those who died during DEA aerial marijuana surveillance operations.
The sad list goes on and on. Several dozen government anti-drug agents and contract workers ? most of them under 40 ? have been killed since America began experimenting with prohibition.
Their lost lives echo the pain and loss of other individuals, families, and ecosystems. People who grow, process, transport and use coca, peyote, mushrooms and opiates around the world have been gunned down or set up by the DEA. Tens of thousands of marijuana growers and users have been shot dead, wounded, arrested, incarcerated. Millions of marijuana plants, which could have provided food, fuel, fiber, fun, have been hacked down, incinerated, poisoned. Millions of pounds of cured marijuana have been confiscated and wasted.
In the introduction to a DEA publication, Public Information Officer Robert Feldkamp recalls the good old days, when DEA was housed in a small building in Washington, DC. The DEA’s lobby included an entrance to a seedy bar, the Blue Mirror, which Feldkamp describes as “a big-time watering hole” for many DEA agents. Does Feldkamp remember that the DEA’s first precursor agency was dedicated to eliminating alcohol from America?
Similar ironies abound. I talked to a 22-year-old student at the museum. I’d overheard him murmuring appreciatively about the many cannabis pipes on display. It was clear he had smoked and enjoyed pot, so it surprised me when he said he’d just completed an internship with Interpol, and was considering a job with the DEA.
“I don’t believe in [the drug war],” he admitted, “but it’s an exciting job with good benefits. Gotta go where the money is.”
I tried to question Fearns about his museum’s inaccurate, one-sided history of drugs, and about the ironies and tragedies created by the drug war. He refused to even consider my questions.
“Frankly, I’m not here to get into a discussion of politics,” he said.
Later, I realized he was scared of marijuana and people who use it.
“The pro-drug organization NORML was having a conference in Maryland in 1999, and they wanted to check out the museum,” Fearns recalled. “Our security people made me nervous by throwing a lot of worst-case scenarios at us, like what if they came in and did some kind of civil disobedience like the animal rights activists do, throwing blood on the carpet or spray painting the walls. Our head of security used to work the White House, and is familiar with all kinds of nut cases. But about 18 of them came in, and they looked just like average citizens. They looked like regular Americans. Their only negative comment was: ‘This is a beautiful building and an expensive operation. What a waste of money.”
? The DEA Museum is open Tues-Fri, 10am-4pm, by appointment only. tel (202) 307-3463; website www.usdoj.gov/dea/deamuseum/home.htm
? DEA Information Services: 700 Army Navy Drive, Arlington, VA 22202
? For news and events from the DEA perspective: members.aol.com/deawatch/dea.htm