Drug control strategies of United States law enforcement


The United States law enforcement system
The drug problem in the United States
Traditional enforcement practices
Street-level enforcement
Mid-level investigation
Major investigation
Crop eradication
Smuggling interdiction
Promising developments
Problem-oriented policing
Financially oriented investigations
Increased international co-operation
Renewed emphasis on drug reduction


Pages: 27 to 39
Creation Date: 1990/01/01

Drug control strategies of United States law enforcement

H. WILLIAMS President, Police Foundation, Washington, D. C, United States of America


The American approach to drug control is conditioned by several national characteristics, including fragmentation of the law enforcement system, a 12,000-mile international boundary and a legal system that restricts police authority to search, arrest, detain, eavesdrop and maintain intelligence files. Drug problems in the United States, though, are by all accounts greater than in any other country. Enforcement has traditionally emphasized street-level arrests, investigation of distribution networks, crop eradication and smuggling interdiction. These practices can be shown to produce arrests and seizures, but there is little evidence to show that they reduce drug supply or drug abuse. More contemporary and promising approaches include community policing, problem-oriented policing, financially oriented investigations, increased international co-operation and a renewed emphasis on drug demand reduction. The most pressing needs in law enforcement are (a) improved intelligence-gathering and analysis and (b), research on the illicit drug industry and on the effectiveness of drug control strategies.


Drug abuse is today one of the most serious problems facing political leaders and law enforcement officials in the United States of America. It was an important issue in the 1988 Presidential election, as well as in many state and local political contests. Drug smuggling is a major concern, especially in southern Florida and the south-western states. Cannabis cultivation is a major component of many state economics, including those of California, Oregon and Kentucky.

Drug-related youth gang violence threatens many areas, particularly Los Angeles and other western cities. Drug-related murders at Washington, D.C" which were high in 1988, have already increased another 50 per cent in 1989. The United States Supreme Court has recently ruled on two cases pertaining to drug testing of employees, although the legality of random drug testing is still undetermined.

The focus of this article is on contemporary law enforcement strategies for countering illicit drug problems. Before turning directly to this topic, it may be helpful to describe briefly the United States law enforcement system and the scope of the drug problem in the United States.

The United States law enforcement system

The most obvious feature of policing in the United States is its fragmen- tation among the federal, state and local levels of government. Police services are provided by a bewildering array of federal agencies that enforce federal criminal laws, state agencies in each of the 50 states that enforce state criminal laws, and a great number of municipal and county agencies that enforce state and local laws. In total, there are at least 15,000 separate agencies in the United States that provide police services, including drug law enforcement [1] . In addition, there are at least 4,000 separate criminal prosecution agencies [2] .

The vast majority of the police and prosecution agencies in the United States are small. only about 4 per cent of the police agencies have more than 100 sworn officers, the median size being 10 [3] ; only about 5 per cent of the prosecution agencies have more than 10 attorneys [2] . Most of these police and prosecution agencies are found at the local level of government, as are about three quarters of all law enforcement personnel [4] . Thus, besides being small in size, most American law enforcement agencies have very limited jurisdiction.

Even the federal drug enforcement effort is fragmented among a number of agencies. These include the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which has enforcement of federal drug laws as its major responsibility; the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which recently added enforcement of federal drug laws to its mission; the United States Customs Service, which has responsibility over people and goods entering and leaving the country; the United States Coast Guard, which has responsibility for the country's water borders; the United States Border Patrol, which has responsibility for the land borders with Mexico and Canada; and the Internal Revenue Service, which enforces laws pertaining to income reporting and taxes.

Because of the diffusion of responsibility for drug control at the federal level, the United States Congress recently established the position of national drug control director, commonly known as "the drug czar". In March 1989, William J. Bennett, a former United States Secretary of Education, became the first to hold this position, after having been appointed by the President and confirmed by Congress. Although not granted administrative authority over any enforcement agencies, he is responsible for coordinating federal drug- control efforts and for developing a national strategy for reducing illicit drug supply and demand.

In addition to structural fragmentation, American drug law enforcement is conditioned by the nature of the legal system. The authority of the police to search for drugs is limited by constitutional principles, as is the authority to arrest, detain, interrogate or eavesdrop. When police exceed their authority, the exclusionary rule is invoked to prohibit the use in court of any evidence improperly obtained. This exclusionary rule is probably invoked more often in drug cases than in any other category of criminal prosecution.

The drug problem in the United States

It is generally accepted that the United States is the world's leading consumer of illicit drugs [5] . This drug consumption results in a variety of social problems and conditions:

  1. Sixteen per cent of Americans consider drugs the nation's number one problem [6] , up from only 2 per cent in 1985 [7] ;

  2. The annual cost of illicit drug use and related crime is estimated to be $US 59 billion [8] ;

  3. In samples of arrestees in 1986, nearly three out of four at Washington, D.C. [8] , and over 80 per cent in New York [9] , tested positive for illicit drugs, mostly cocaine;

  4. Forty-three per cent of state prison inmates reported having used illegal drugs on a daily or near-daily basis during the month before their most recent offence [10] ;

  5. Over 60 per cent of high school students reported having used illicit drugs at some time in their lives [11] ;

  6. In 1987, 937,400 arrests were made in the United States for crimes involving the possession or sale of illegal drugs [12] .

These figures, frightening as they are, fail to fully describe the effects of extensive drug abuse on American society. Thousands of people die each year of drug overdoses and many more live in misery. Thousands of families are torn apart. Young people with potential slip into despair and promising careers are ruined. Schools find it more difficult to educate and business productivity suffers. The limited government resources available must be spent on drug enforcement, education and rehabilitation rather than on other pressing needs. Whole communities deteriorate from the effects of drug abuse, open drug dealing and pervasive fear. Intravenous drug abuse fuels the spread of the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) virus. Even United States foreign policy is affected, as crop eradication and smuggling control become national security issues and as international narcotics trafficking and terrorism become more intermingled.

Traditional enforcement practices

While it is extremely difficult to identify and summarize the enforcement practices of over 15,000 police agencies, traditional drug enforcement in the United States seems to have relied primarily upon five strategies: street-level enforcement, mid-level investigation, major investigation, crop eradication and smuggling interdiction [131.

Street-level enforcement

Street-level enforcement is carried out primarily by patrol officers, tactical squad officers and plainclothes officers. The focus of this enforcement is on drug users and street dealers. Tactics include surveillance, interruption of suspected transactions, raids of "shooting galleries" and "crack houses" [14] , buy-and-bust operations and "reverse stings", in which plainclothes police offer to sell drugs to willing customers [15] .

Most drug-related arrests and seizures result from this type of street-level enforcement. The people arrested are usually small-time offenders, however, and the seizures are usually small as well. Because most jails and prisons in the United States are overcrowded, street-level arrests rarely result in incarceration. For these reasons, some observers have criticized the street-level enforcement strategy. In fact, it was de-emphasized during much of the late 1970s and early 1980s [16, 17].

More recently, however, street-level enforcement has regained some of its former stature. One argument that has been advanced is that aggressive street- level enforcement may discourage some drug users by increasing the risk of detection and arrest, thus reducing drug demand. In addition, where open drug dealing becomes so pervasive that children, the elderly and others are driven from the streets and ancillary crimes such as robbery increase, enforcement may be desirable as a means of maintaining order and protecting the community's quality of life [18, 19]. Some evidence from studies of Operation Pressure Point in New York and a crackdown at Lynn, Massachusetts [20] , support this view, although others interpret the data differently [21, 22] and a crackdown at Lawrence, Massachusetts, did not obtain the same results [23] .

Mid-level investigation

Mid-level investigation strategy is employed primarily by local jurisdictions who use informants or undercover police officers [24] . The purpose is to identify and make cases against mid-level drug distributors, those who bring drugs into the jurisdiction to distribute to lower-level dealers. Mid-level drug distributors are not really drug kingpins, and may in fact occupy fairly low- level positions within the overall drug trafficking network; but they are probably the highest-ranking traffickers to which most local police departments can hope to gain access.

The basic tactic used in mid-level investigation is to "work up" from the street to higher levels in the trafficking organization. Undercover officers may first gain the confidence of street-level dealers and then request to purchase sufficiently large quantities that the dealer must bring in the supplier. Alternatively, informants may be able to introduce undercover officers to mid- level distributors. Arrests of street-level dealers sometimes make this possible if they agree to inform on their suppliers in return for some consideration in prosecution.

This mid-level strategy produces fewer arrests and drug seizures than does street-level enforcement, but those arrested are more highly placed in drug trafficking organizations and seizures are larger. Whether these kinds of seizures and arrests have any appreciable impact on drug availability or the level of drug abuse is largely unknown. It seems, however, that seized drugs are readily replaced in the drug "market" and that arrested distributors either gain rapid release, operate their networks from prison or are quickly replaced. The primary accomplishment of mid-level investigation may simply be that it reassures the public that the local police department has the will and the ability to take on drug distributors.

Major investigation

The major investigation strategy is targeted at the individuals and organizations responsible for producing, importing and distributing large quantities of illicit drugs. This approach is primarily utilized by federal and state law enforcement agencies and the largest local police departments. Because these major investigations take long periods of time, often involve considerable travel and require specialized expertise, they are beyond the means of most local jurisdictions. When multi-jurisdictional task forces [25] are employed, though, local agencies may have an opportunity to participate.

Many successful major investigations depend on undercover officers or informants for evidence. Investigative grand juries are often used to pressure suspects, and electronic surveillance is relied upon to gather information not ordinarily available to investigators [26] . It is increasingly common to focus on bank and tax records, to utilize conspiracy statutes and to prosecute under the powerful federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) and Continuing Criminal Enterprise (CCE) laws.

The major investigation strategy is probably most effective when directed at highly centralized drug trafficking organizations. These organizations are large enough to justify the investment of substantial investigative resources, and successful prosecution of the leaders of these organizations may have a significant impact on drug availability. Experience has shown, however, that as with mid-level investigations, many incarcerated drug kingpins continue to operate from prison and others are readily replaced [16] . Consequently, major investigations increasingly emphasize two related tactics: targeting the entire trafficking network, rather than focusing solely on the kingpins; and obtaining all the assets of the network, in addition to making arrests and drug seizures [27] . Together, these two tactics are more likely than a few arrests and drug seizures to effectively cripple drug trafficking organizations and disrupt the flow of illicit drugs.

Crop eradication

The crop eradication strategy is practised by law enforcement agencies at the local, state and federal levels, but with important variations. Local and state agencies are largely restricted to cannabis eradication, since cannabis is the only major illicit drug cultivated in the United States. Federal agencies, by contrast, become involved in international treaties and agreements aimed at reducing the cultivation of heroin- and cocaine-producing crops in other parts of the world [28] .

The obvious advantage of the crop eradication strategy is that it intervenes at the start of the drug trafficking process; in principle, this approach should have the greatest potential impact on illicit drug supply. Serious practical problems inhibit the effectiveness of the strategy, however [16] . The crops are typically cultivated in remote, largely inaccessible areas. Farmers are usually reluctant to switch to legal crops because profits are greater in the illicit market. Locating and physically destroying crops is difficult, time-consuming, labour-intensive and dangerous. The alternative of chemically destroying crops often has hazardous consequences for people, water supplies, animals and other vegetation. And even when crop eradication in one location is successful, farmers in other areas stand ready to cultivate profitable illicit crops.

Despite massive cannabis crop destruction in the United States, concerted efforts towards coca destruction in South America and continuing foreign policy initiatives encouraging reduced cultivation of coca and opium poppy around the world, there is little evidence that the crop eradication strategy has reduced drug abuse or the availability of illicit drugs. The overall supply of drugs is apparently sufficient to withstand the current effects of eradication. In addition, successful eradication efforts directed at any one illicit drug may simply cause abusers to switch to another drug.

Smuggling interdiction

The primary responsibility for drug smuggling interdiction rests with such federal agencies as DEA, Customs, the Coast Guard and the Border Patrol, though, in fact, many state and local law enforcement agencies play a role. Besides those states and local jurisdictions along the nation's borders, many other jurisdictions have international airports and even more have small airports and airfields accessible to smugglers.

Those responsible for smuggling interdiction strategy confront a situation of monumental proportions: a 12,000-mile international boundary; more than 270 million people who cross that boundary each year; and over 420 billion tonnes of goods imported or exported annually [16] . The number of people smuggling illicit drugs and the quantities of those drugs are very small in comparison, making the task of identifying the smugglers and locating the drugs extremely difficult. The use of such techniques as airborne "look-down" radar, electronic border monitoring, drug-sniffing dogs and smuggler "profiles" helps law enforcement agencies target their efforts, but effectively sealing the national borders against the importation of illicit drugs remains impossible. This is especially true for cocaine and heroin, which are far less bulky than cannabis and smuggled in much smaller quantities.

Promising developments

The five traditional enforcement strategies described above have produced numerous arrests, convictions and drug seizures in the United States but have had little if any substantial or long-term impact on the supply of illicit drugs or the extent of drug abuse. Recent developments have suggested that these traditional strategies should be supplemented with five other approaches: problem-oriented policing strategies, community-oriented policing strategies, more financially oriented drug investigations, more extensive international co-operation and a renewed emphasis on drug demand reduction.

Problem-oriented policing

A number of police departments in the United States have adopted a problem-oriented approach to policing over the last decade [29, 30]. This strategy suggests focusing attention on the underlying problems that generate crime, disorder and service incidents, instead of treating the incidents as discrete, unrelated events [31] . The methodology of problem-oriented policing is to search out these underlying problems, analyse them in detail, apply solutions to them and then assess the effectiveness of the solutions [32] . Relevant problems and causes include fear, disorder, deterioration of the physical environment and inadequate delivery of social services, as well as more traditional and directly crime-related issues. Solutions to problems may require assistance from other public and private agencies, as well as the entire range of police interventions.

Police departments at Atlanta, Georgia, Tampa, Florida, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Tulsa, Oklahoma, and San Diego, California, are experimenting with the problem-oriented methodology in handling such specific problems as drug dealing in public housing projects [33] , drug abuse among teenagers [34] and drug abuse in abandoned buildings [35] .

The problem-oriented approach to drug law enforcement is particularly promising because it encourages careful analysis before taking action and it recommends enlisting other public and private agencies in the problem-solving process. Careful analysis has merit in drug enforcement because every community's problems are different and because the precise nature of consumption, retailing, wholesaling, transportation, smuggling and production varies by location and by drug type. The Police Foundation is currently field testing the problem-oriented policing approach in two drug-related experiments in the United States-one at Oakland, California, and the other at Birmingham, Alabama. Tactics that are successful in one community do not necessarily work in others, and strategies designed to combat one drug may not work against another. Strategies and tactics should be customized and resources should be targeted, all based on careful problem analysis.

Police drug control efforts can benefit by assistance from all kinds of public and private agencies, including public housing authorities, recreation departments, public utilities, schools, telephone companies, apartment management agencies, shipping companies and many others. After carefully analysing drug-related problems, police should consider a wide range of possible solutions and not limit consideration to traditional or police-only interventions.


Paralleling the development of problem-oriented policing has been increased interest in community-oriented models of policing. Previous efforts involving police-community relations, team policing and crime prevention programming have evolved into a community-oriented approach to the entire array of police services. Studies of community-oriented policing projects at Flint, Michigan [36] , Newark, New Jersey, and Houston, Texas [37, 38], and in Baltimore County, Maryland [39, 40], produced consistent evidence of reductions in fear of crime and improved citizen and police officer satisfaction, although effects on crime were less clearly demonstrated. Some observers now see community policing as the emerging mega-strategy of American policing [41] , while others are less convinced [42] .

Community policing is both a philosophy and a set of techniques. The philosophy holds that the police should stay in close touch with the community and provide police services in accordance with community desires. The techniques include foot patrol, store-fronts and other mini-stations, door-to- door contact with citizens, community organizing, ombudsman-like activities, provision of social services and problem-oriented policing.

Community-oriented policing may make several contributions to police drug control efforts. Foot patrol and problem-oriented activity may help prevent overt street-level drug dealing in a community. Successful community policing may improve public support for police enforcement efforts, including increased citizen willingness to report drug offences and identify drug dealers. Community organizing may empower citizens to resist the encroachment of drug dealers and drug abusers on their communities. Improved social services, whether provided by police officers or obtained through police ombudspersons, may help individuals resist the temptations of illicit drugs.

Financially oriented investigations

Mid-level and major investigations of drug trafficking are increasingly focusing on the financial transactions that go to the heart of the illicit drug business and on seizing the assets of individuals and organizations engaged in drug crimes. Inasmuch as profit is the primary objective of those involved in the drug trade, it makes good sense to take away from convicted drug offenders as much money, property and other possessions as possible. Also, since one of the most difficult challenges facing successful drug traffickers is hiding or "laundering" enormous sums of money [26] , it makes sense for investigators to focus their attention on banking and other money transactions.

In this respect, drug crime investigation can adopt the most successful techniques from organized crime and white-collar crime investigation [43, 44]. These include a strong emphasis on intelligence gathering and analysis; a focus on financial transactions; and a strategic enforcement approach that targets illegal organizations and the entire illicit "industry" rather than a few individuals and a few well-publicized drug seizures. Given the limited investigative resources that law enforcement agencies have available, strategic targeting is absolutely essential.

Increased international co-operation

Many drug criminals evade arrest and prosecution by conducting their business across international borders, by operating from within countries that have lax or restricted enforcement and by fleeing to countries that refuse to extradite fugitives. To the extent that these criminals are aided by inadequate information sharing and co-ordination among the world's law enforcement agencies, continued development of the International Criminal Police Organization (ICPO/Interpol) system will improve matters [45, 46] ICPO/Interpol is also becoming increasingly active in assisting member countries in major drug investigations [47]

Efforts sponsored by the United Nations in recent years similarly contribute to increased international co-operation. Drug law enforcement conferences are held regularly.* The Division of Narcotic Drugs has provided information and assistance to many law enforcement agencies; and a standard instructional manual for world-wide use is now being developed.

Bilateral agreements and international pressure also seem to be increasing in respect to drug abuse control. Most recently, it was announced that the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics will hold talks to improve co-operation in controlling narcotics trafficking [49] and four top army officers were dismissed in Haiti based on United States evidence of their involvement in the drug trade [50] . Despite the delicacies of international diplomacy and the economic importance of illicit drugs for some developing countries, it can be expected that additional bilateral agreements, incentives and pressure will make it more difficult for drug traffickers to conduct their business [51] .

Renewed emphasis on drug reduction

In the long run, it is clear that enforcement efforts aimed at reducing the supply of illicit drugs cannot succeed unless they are accompanied by reductions in the demand for drugs. During the 1980s, the federal Government devoted three times more funding to drug enforcement than to drug treatment, prevention and education [52] . While many would argue that total funding was inadequate to begin with, more support for demand-reduction programmes is needed and, in fact, has been advocated by the President.

The police have at least three important roles to play in drug demand reduction. Through enforcement, the police can discourage some drug users who fear arrest and can cause others to go to court and then to court-ordered treatment. Through public education programmes, especially in the schools, the police can lend their stature and credibility to the effort to convince young individuals to resist temptations and peer pressure [53] . And in the policy- making arena, the police can support funding for drug treatment, prevention and education programmes. As the beneficiaries of political popularity in favour of "get tough" enforcement methods, police officials should tend their weight to less popular but equally deserving social action programmes.


There is very little evidence that the traditional drug enforcement strategies used by American law enforcement have had any substantial impact on drug

*The International Conference on Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, held at Vienna in June 1987, was attended by representatives from 138 countries, most of whom were ministers or persons of equivalent rank [481. availability or drug abuse. Some newer strategies, including problem-oriented policing, community policing, financially oriented investigations, increased international co-operation and demand reduction, show some promise, but their effects on drug supply and drug abuse are as yet unproven. In designing policies and strategies to combat drug-related crime, often the tendency is to act more on faith than on fact.

In the areas of drug investigation, interdiction and eradication, the greatest need is for improved intelligence gathering and analysis. It is impossible to eradicate all illicit crops, seat national borders and arrest and incarcerate all offenders. And so, it is necessary to make the best use of available resources. This requires painstaking intelligence work that identifies major drug- distributing organizations and their most important members; uncovers the flow of cash; identifies the production and transportation systems that provide the drugs; and implicates any public officials and "legitimate" business people who provide protection, safe passage and money-laundering opportunities.

The target of this intelligence analysis and the investigations supported by it should be entire drug trafficking networks and drug "industries". Only by understanding and documenting the operation of such networks and industries can sufficient arrests, drug seizures and asset forfeitures be made to disrupt the drug trade. It is equally necessary to implicate and prosecute public officials and business people who aid drug traffickers, so that corruption and malfeasance will become too risky an undertaking.

In all areas of drug abuse control, including drug enforcement, there is a vital need for more research. There is a need for descriptive research that dovetails with intelligence analysis in uncovering exactly how drug markets and drug industries operate-everything from "how cannabis grown in Kentucky gets to customers at Detroit" to "how Latin American cocaine kingpins direct and control distribution thousands of miles away in the United States". There is also a need for evaluations and assessments that can provide an understanding of which enforcement strategies work and which do not-or, more likely, which ones work against what drugs in what kinds of situations.

Beginning in the early 1970s, the federal Government and organizations such as the Police Foundation began to critically examine the effectiveness of traditional police practices in the United States. Initially, the research suggested that nothing worked, but gradually some strategies were identified as being more effective than others. Today, United States police practices are informed by a growing body of knowledge based on careful research.

The same approach should be taken in the area of drug abuse control. Instead of continuing to implement the same old drug enforcement strategies or newer ones that seem popular at any given time, there is a need to embark on a programme of systematic research in order to identify what works and what does not.

Fortunately, this process has begun. A number of valuable studies have already been conducted with funding from the National Institute of Justice [54] and others are in progress. Moreover, beginning in 1989, the Bureau of Justice Assistance is requiring monitoring and evaluation of many of the drug-related projects it funds. This means that all kinds of drug enforcement strategies, including financial investigations, cannabis eradication, street-sales enforcement, narcotics task forces and asset seizure and forfeiture, will be systematically studied [55] . The results of this research should enable American law enforcement to substantially improve the efficiency and effectiveness of its drug abuse control efforts.



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