How does law enforcement regulate drugs?

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In the United States, the passage of drug laws that define substances as illegal or under the regulatory control of the government necessitated a mechanism for ensuring that these laws are obeyed. Law enforcement agencies at the federal, state, and local levels provide that mechanism. These agencies have been entrusted with the responsibility of enforcing drug laws by interrupting the production, importation, distribution, and sales of drugs in a collective effort known as supply reduction.
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History of Drug Laws

With the passage of the landmark Harrison Narcotics Tax Act in 1914, introduced by US Representative Francis Burton Harrison of New York, the US federal government began its continuous oversight of psychoactive substances. The new law made illegal and began regulating such drugs as narcotics, cocaine, and marijuana and numerous prescription and nonprescription drugs, including amphetamines.

The act taxed physicians only $1.00 annually for the right to legally prescribe opium, morphine, and coca leaves and their various derivatives, mislabeling the latter as a narcotic instead of a stimulant. However, nonphysicians were charged $1,000 for each exchange of any of these drugs, essentially prohibiting exchange under the strict penalty of law for tax evasion. Also, physicians were prohibited from prescribing opiates to treat addicts for maintenance purposes because addiction was not considered a disease, and physicians had to register with the federal government each prescription written and the name of each user.

From its enactment until 1970, the act was the prototypic antidrug law, spawning a succession of legislation drafted to limit the production, distribution, sale, and possession of unlawful substances. Following the legislative model of the 1914 act, the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act was introduced by Robert Doughton of North Carolina and passed over the objections of the American Medical Association. The law prohibited the sale of hemp, cannabis, or marijuana by anyone other than registered and licensed commercial establishments. Each transaction of these products required a transfer tax. The Marijuana Tax Act was repealed by the Comprehensive Drug Prevention and Control Act of 1970, known as the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), which incorporated under one statute many of the extant federal drug laws (for example, the Opium Poppy Control Act of 1942, the Boggs Act of 1951, and the Narcotic Control Act of 1956).

The CSA created a schedule of drugs (I–V) that classified substances, in a hierarchy, according to their widely accepted medical use (ascending order) and potential for abuse and dependence (descending order). According to this hierarchy, drugs in schedule I have no accepted medical use and the highest potential for abuse and dependence, whereas drugs in schedule V have an accepted medical use and the lowest potential for abuse and dependence. Many schedule V drugs (such as codeine) were available as over-the-counter medications (in small amounts in cough syrup). The CSA also transferred the authority for drug regulation from the US Department of Commerce to the Department of Justice, thereby criminalizing all aspects of the drug trade—from production to trafficking, sales, and possession.

Federal Anti-drug Agencies

The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was established in 1973 as the federal government’s lead agency for ensuring that domestic drug laws are obeyed and that drug offenders are arrested and punished. With an annual budget of more than $2 billion as of 2014, the DEA also directs many drug investigations abroad. The forerunner to the DEA was the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), housed under the Department of Treasury and led by Harry Anslinger. The FBN undertook numerous domestic and international operations in an effort to halt narcotics smuggling.

Reflecting the federal government’s abiding and serious interest in eradicating illegal drugs, it created, through the passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), which remains under the auspices of the executive branch of the federal government. The ONDCP sets policy, allocates resources, and engages in public information campaigns to prevent and control drug sales and use throughout the country and to prohibit illegal drugs from entering the United States. The director of the ONDCP, the so-called drug czar, is appointed by the US president to serve as the leading authority on drug enforcement initiatives. The directorship, once a cabinet-level post, has been held by William Bennett (former secretary of education), Barry McCaffrey (a retired US Army general), and John Walters (former assistant to the secretary of education). Michael Botticelli, a longtime recovering alcoholic and former deputy director, was sworn into the position in February 2015.

Enforcement Activities

The enforcement of drug laws in general occurs at four levels: international, national, state, and local. The international and national levels are under the aegis of the federal government. State and local police departments have specialized units for drug enforcement activities.

In certain instances, resources at each level are combined and coordinated through special task forces that concentrate on a particular drug (such as methamphetamine) or on a particular drug-trafficking enterprise (for example, outlaw motorcycle gangs). To prevent drugs from being smuggled across country or state borders in conveyances (for example, airplanes, boats, cars, trucks, and trains), the government employs agents from the FBI, DEA, Department of Homeland Security (US Customs and Border Patrol), and Transportation Security Administration to perform searches for illegal substances in a multistage interdiction process that involves intelligence gathering, surveillance, pursuit, and capture of smugglers.

To identify smugglers, trained officers implement drug-courier profiling techniques, watching vehicles and persons for telltale signs of drug trafficking. Drugs can be hidden in legitimate cargo or in false compartments in suitcases and in vehicle trunks and door panels. To uncover illegal substances, agents use advanced imaging technologies, trained dogs, pat-downs, body scans, and searches of persons. Drug smugglers have attempted to thwart officials by swallowing drug-filled balloons or by hiding drugs in bodily orifices—a dangerous practice that can result in death if the balloons burst and their contents are absorbed through the stomach or mucosa.

In cooperation with foreign governments, the DEA has engaged in crop eradication efforts that destroy the plants that are later processed into drugs for street sales. Such efforts to destroy crops involve the use of deracination (uprooting) techniques and chemical (for example, paraquat) and incendiary agents. US and foreign governments have subsidized the growers of illegal crops (for example, poppies for opium) to encourage them to cultivate legal crops and to discourage them from participating in the drug trade.

Drug enforcement efforts also focus on interrupting the processing of crops into saleable substances. For example, the milky juice from poppies, which is turned into a brownish gummy matter and then to a powder, becomes heroin for sale and consumption. Other drug factories produce cocaine from coca leaves. More sophisticated factories produce the main ingredient for methamphetamine (pseudoephedrine). The makeshift drug laboratories that produce methamphetamine are usually located in rural areas to hide the noxious odors and toxic, environmentally hazardous chemicals that are by-products of the production process. Drug enforcement agents seize, close, and destroy drug-producing factories of every type.

At the street level, police officers in specialized drug enforcement units gather intelligence from hotlines, local residents, and low-level criminals and informants to uncover drug-selling entities, such as street gangs in urban areas or freelance drug sellers. Officers disrupt operations by raiding houses in which drugs are packaged and stored for sale. Large amounts of drugs and money are seized from these premises as evidence.

In poor communities, drugs are often sold on the street. The public nature of these transactions makes it easier for police to engage in undercover enforcement activities known as buy-and-bust operations. In sting operations, officers pose as drug customers. In reverse-sting operations, officers pose as drug sellers. In both types of activities, an arrest is made after money and drugs are exchanged.

Closed markets are more difficult to police because drug sellers engage in transactions only with known drug customers or those vouched for by trusted friends or criminal associates. Local police can enforce drug laws by implementing other strategies as well, including the use of visible area patrols, crackdowns or sweeps in drug-infested neighborhoods, and partnerships with community-based antidrug programs. Police also can enforce nuisance abatement laws, which close down or seize properties where drugs are stashed or sold, and ordinances that allow them to seal vacant buildings, which are havens for drug sellers and users.


Levinthal, Charles F. Drugs, Society, and Criminal Justice. Boston: Prentice Hall, 2012. Print.

Rowe, Thomas C. Federal Narcotics Laws and the War on Drugs. New York: Haworth, 2006. Print.

Zilney, Lisa Anne. Drugs: Policy, Social Costs, and Justice. Boston: Prentice Hall, 2011. Print.