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DEA Seeks Prosecutors To Fight Opioid Crisis; Critics Fear Return To War On Drugs

An advocacy group says a move at the Drug Enforcement Administration to hire prosecutors is another signal of how the Justice Department is changing under Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Spencer Platt
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An advocacy group says a move at the Drug Enforcement Administration to hire prosecutors is another signal of how the Justice Department is changing under Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The Drug Enforcement Administration has proposed hiring its own prosecutor corps to bring cases related to drug trafficking, money laundering and asset forfeiture — a move that advocacy groups warn could exceed the DEA's legal authority and reinvigorate the 1980s-era war on drugs.

Citing the epidemic in opioid-related overdoses, the DEA said it wants to hire as many as 20 prosecutors to enhance its resources and target the biggest offenders. The DEA said the new force of lawyers "would be permitted to represent the United States in criminal and civil proceedings before the courts and apply for various legal orders." The agency would use money it gets from companies that manufacture and dispense certain kinds of prescription drugs under the federal Controlled Substances Act.

The agency's proposal, published in the federal register in March, received little if any public attention. But it would represent the first time the DEA had its own, dedicated prosecutors to go after drug-related offenses. Those lawyers would be shared or "detailed" to U.S. attorney's offices and the main Justice Department, after an assessment of which regions needed the most help.

In an interview, DEA spokesman Rusty Payne described the plan as an outgrowth of the destruction that opioids have wreaked.

"We're losing 90 people a day to opioids and about 140 a day to drugs altogether," Payne said. "It's pretty clear we've got to use the tools we have at our disposal to attack this. We've got to hold accountable the people who are facilitating addiction and heartache."

The idea worries the Drug Policy Alliance, which lobbies for a public health approach to drugs. The Alliance argues that the plan "exceeds DEA's authority under federal law" because the prosecutorial arm of the Justice Department can't be funded through the drug diversion registration program without input from Capitol Hill.

"In this notice, the DEA effectively proposes a power grab and is trying to end-run the congressional appropriations process," said Michael Collins, deputy director at the Drug Policy Alliance.

Collins said the special account at DEA is intended to keep prescription drugs safe and available to patients who need them, not to pay for prosecutors to target drug offenders. He said the rule is yet another warning signal that the Justice Department is shifting its approach to drug criminals under new Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Sessions, who was a U.S. attorney in Alabama in the 1980s, frequently decries the danger from drugs and gangs and uses rhetoric with echoes from the height of the cocaine epidemic.

"If the Sessions DOJ wants to abandon criminal justice reform, and escalate the war on drugs, that conversation should happen above board and in public; not in some arcane rulemaking document that very few people read or understand," Collins added.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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