The DEA recently requested and was granted an expansion of powers to crack down on protests against police brutality and racial injustice that have spread across the nation in response to the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis.
The May 31 memo, originally obtained by BuzzFeed News, reveals that the DEA was given the ability to act outside its statutory authority to enforce federal crimes related to drugs. The memo, apparently authored by Timothy J. Shea, acting administrator for the DEA, requests that the U.S. attorney general allow the DEA to “perform other law enforcement duties as he may deem appropriate,” under 21 U.S.C. §878(a)(5) in order to “assist to the maximum extent possible in the federal law enforcement response to protests which devolve into violations of federal law.” The document specifies that the grant of additional authority lasts for 14 days. However, Jason Leopold, one of two reporters who originally broke the story, believes that this time period has been extended.
By granting the request, the attorney general gave the DEA the power to: “(1) conduct covert surveillance and protect against threats to public safety; (2) share intelligence with federal, state, local, and tribal counterparts; (3) if necessary, intervene as Federal law enforcement officers to protect both participants and spectators in the protests; and (4) if necessary, engage in investigative and enforcement activity including, but not limited to, conducting interviews, conducting searches, and making arrests for violations of Federal law.”
As a former DEA Drug Task Force commander, I understand there are times when law enforcement resources need to be shared and extreme circumstances may require the DEA to act outside of its typical jurisdiction. But as an attorney and a Marine who swore to defend the Constitution, I am disturbed at the prospect of the DEA engaging in covert surveillance and investigation of Americans exercising their First Amendment right to free speech.
Protesters in the United States and across the world have sent a collective message that has forced governments and citizens to reexamine the integrity of law enforcement, the lack of consequences in response to unjustified deaths caused by police and the glaring disparity in how racial minorities are treated by the very people who are supposed to serve and protect them. Unfortunately, police response to the protests has often taken the form of more exertion of force. This memo requesting an expansion of DEA authority comes at a time when protests have been met with the use of tear gas and rubber bullets. Approving the memo opens the door for the agency to step outside of its designated role and secretly spy on American citizens.
I cannot help but notice the irony that the DEA referenced the Controlled Substances Act in its request for more power. The fact that the memo cited the very law that served as the basis for the failed War on Drugs, which was disproportionality applied to minority communities through policies like mandatory minimum sentencing and led to the mass militarization of police, affirms the tone–deaf and willfully ignorant message this memo sends to the American people.
If state and federal law enforcement’s response to free speech is escalation and authoritarianism, what precedent does it set for the government’s response to the exercise of other rights? This is not the first time our government has used crisis to strengthen its power over citizens. The DEA memo is only the latest step in the increase in police powers that has enabled our current system of unequal application of justice.
Now is not the time to broaden the surveillance and investigatory power of American law enforcement against the people they are sworn to protect and serve. Now is the time to reevaluate our tendency to respond to societal issues with force and to consider alternatives that will allow us to live in a nation where all citizens are truly treated equal.
Charles Feldmann is a partner at Hoban Law Group and the CEO of Gateway Proven Strategies (GPS.Global). He serves as a trusted adviser for the cannabis industry’s largest and most profitable businesses on an international scale. His full bio can be found at: gps.global/charles-feldmann-ceo-co-founder.