Former Head of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), NYC writes a memorandum
to Attorney General Jeff Sessions:
Dear Attorney General,
This memorandum establishes that your policy on charging and sentencing for the Department of
Justice will not succeed. An incarceration-based reaction to drug use in our society is costly and is
of vague service to public safety. I’ll make this simple…
Incarceration doesn’t work. Been there. Done that.
I was once the head of the DEA’s largest office in the world, New Your City, under the Reagan
and Bush administrations. I fought the first war on drugs. I lived through the LSD elevation, the
birth of the marijuana inclination and, most importantly, the cocaine and crack epidemic. Some
have said I was the face of the drug war. An observation proven right when in 1988 Pablo Escobar
put a hit on my life for seizing several tons of his cocaine and holding up his headshot at a press
Back then we thought what we were doing was right. I dedicated my life’s work to locking up drug
offenders. DEA agents willingly gave their lives believing the same was true. Incarceration was
rationalized on the basis of its assumed effects – that imprisonment would deter offenders, reduce
crime, get rehabilitation for imprisoned drug abusers and give retribution to the victims of drug
violence. It didn’t happen.
There is now a considerable burden of evidence indicating that incarcerating drug offenders doesn’t
rehabilitate or deter crime, and has minimal effects on the reduction of crime.
We were dead wrong.
At best, I have seen incarceration increase the prison population of non-violent offenders while
doing nothing to reduce drug use or increase public safety. Yet, year by year, I have seen the death
toll rise of drug abusers in America. When I retired from the DEA in 1990, approximately 8500
people died of a drug overdose. In 2015, drug overdose was, and still is, the leading cause of
accidental death in the U.S., with 52,404 lethal drug overdoses (1).
People are doping and dropping like flies.
To add salt to the wound, increased spending on prisons has been shown to correlate with a
reduction in spending on education, education being one of the most effective investments a
country can make in preventing drug use (2). Attorney General, are you suggesting instead of
preventative measures with education, we should throw those funds towards a costly and failing
prison system? It’s like buying diamond-studded Band-Aids to slap on our shot gun wounds
instead of first teaching our people about gun safety. There’s a lot of holes in that theory sir. “Let’s
get tough on drugs,” sounds more like “Let’s get tough with Band-Aids.”
Have you ever thought about putting money into a system that has been proven to work?
Let’s bark up the right tree. Treatment.
In the second part of my career as a speaker and educator of fighting America’s worst drug
epidemic, I have come to realize that drug abuse is a mental health issue. Treatment is less
expensive than imprisonment and more effectively uses valuable resources for the prevention and
treatment of drug use disorders (2).
In addition to reducing drug use, treatment of substance use disorders decreases health care
problems such as HIV and facilitates employment. Cost-benefit analyses of drug treatment looking
at the effect on health care costs, employment, and government expenditure on social services and
crime have estimated the returns on investment range from 7:1 to 18:1, meaning that for every
dollar spent on drug treatment, savings of between 7 and 18 dollars are returned (3,4).
What are your numbers, Attorney General? Here’s a few:
As of April 2017 there were nearly 82,000 (46.3%) U.S. inmates in federal prisons on drug offenses
(5). Incarceration of a federal prisoner costs an average of $31,977 per year (6). So your numbers
average $2.62 billion a year on a failed system. Oh and did I mention, more than 80% of drug
abusers relapse and re-offense after release from prison and three-year re-arrest rates are
consistently around 70% (7).
Trust me, cost-effective treatment alternatives to incarceration exist at every step in the criminal
justice process. I’ve dedicated my life to this fight, and if we don’t change our strategy, this drug
war will never end. Until we get smarter and work harder at using a better weapon against the war
on drugs, nothing will change. Using incarceration against the war on drugs is like bringing a BB
gun to an UZI convention. Treatment is the new, modern weapon of the 21st century.
I’ve seen it all and there is only one thing that I know for certain. When history lends us its hand
filled with knowledge from empirical evidence, it’s our job to take it and learn from it. Didn’t you
get that memo, Attorney General?
Written by Bob Stutman of The Stutman Switalski Group LLC
Robert Stutman, formerly “the most famous narc in America” (New York Magazine), and “one of our nation’s heroes” (Dan Rather, CBS News) made a 25-year career as one of America’s highest-profile drug busters. For six years he headed the largest Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) office in the world, New York. In addition, Bob has been the Special Consultant on substance abuse for CBS News, PBS and CNN. His bestselling autobiography Dead on Delivery was published by Warner Books and made into a TV movie.
(1) Rudd RA, Seth P, David F, Scholl L. Increases in Drug and Opioid-Involved Overdose
Deaths — United States, 2010–2015. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2016;65:1445–1452.
(2) United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime UNODC). Why promote prison reform? New
York: UNODC; 2016
(3) Godfrey C, Stewart D, Gossop M. Economic analysis of costs and consequences of the
treatment of drug misuse: 2-year outcome data from the National Treatment Outcome Research
Study (NTORS). Addiction. 2004;99(6):697–707.
(4) Rydell, CP, Everingham SS. Controlling cocaine: supply versus demand programs (Vol.
331). Santa Monica: Rand Corporation;1994.
(7) CASA. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
Behind bars II: substance abuse and America’s prison population. New York: CASA; 2010.