Inside the DEA

In the murky world of drug enforcement, agents lie, cheat, and steal in the name of the law.


When Basil Norris Abbott III heard that his motorcycle shop had been ripped off by a heroin-peddling bike gang, he did what any law-abiding citizen might do. After talking to the Houston police, he contacted the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Welcoming the tip, the DEA asked whether Abbott could lead them to the culprits. Abbott complied and was duly registered as an official DEA informant in October 1973.

Unlike many informants, Abbott wasn't a drug dealer caught in the act and willing to make a deal. He did have a criminal record, having been convicted while in his teens and twenties, once for car theft and once for use of a stolen credit card. By working for the DEA, he hoped to obtain a new identity. "I was basically a pretty straight guy," he says. "I was attracted to the excitement, the glamor, the money" of the drug trade.

As an informant, or "C.I." (cooperating individual), Abbott proved successful at ferreting out drug-dealing bike gangs and introducing them to DEA agents. Over the next several years, he worked for the DEA out of Texas, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Utah, and New Mexico, fraternizing with narcs and drug dealers alike.

In the process, he also discovered just how obscure the distinctions are between right and wrong, legal and illegal in the world of drug enforcement. When a drug law is violated, no individual rights are abridged. There is no murder victim to be avenged, no stolen property to be returned to its rightful owner, no battered body to be made whole. And there are no crime victims to complain to the police. So DEA agents must find, or create, their own cases, In doing so, they inevitably intrude on individual lives and liberties and twist the very laws they are supposed to uphold.

In the double-dealing world of narcotics enforcement, honesty and good faith are of scant account; what matters is whether one cooperates with the government. Basil Abbott's story, with its mixture of the illegal and the unscrupulous, illustrates just how unsavory the war on drugs can become.

The DEA paid Abbott a few hundred dollars here and there, in cash, for tips leading to busts. Still, he began to have money problems. His motorcycle business was petering out, and his criminal record made it difficult to find a job. Then Abbott figured out how DEA informants make money. He began to resell the drugs that he was buying to set dealers up for the DEA, and he soon established a lucrative side practice. The DEA, he says, was not greatly perturbed: "They laughed when I told them. They said it made me more credible."

Abbott says the DEA warned him not to deal on too large a scale but allowed him to make his living on small and medium-size deals. Abbott says he dealt mainly in marijuana and later cocaine, while informing on dealers who sold heroin. "I justified it to myself thinking heroin is this horrible stuff. You see these junkies—they're all stealing to support their habit, they're really pitiful."

The DEA refuses to discuss Abbott's activities but insists that it "does not condone" illegal activity by informants. However, people familiar with DEA operations say it is common practice for agents to look the other way. This system, while illegal, has obvious advantages. Not only does it give the DEA an inside track on the drug traffic, but it also affords a lucrative source of financial support to cooperative informants.

Agents, too, sometimes deal drugs on the side, though the agency takes a much less tolerant attitude toward this behavior. Abbott says he noted frequent discrepancies between the amounts of drugs he had seen confiscated and the amounts reported by DEA agents. He believes that DEA agents took the difference—an allegation often made by drug defendants, though invariably difficult to confirm.

DEA spokesmen refuse to comment on Abbott's allegations or activities. "We cannot confirm or deny the existence of a confidential informant without that informant being in the room," I was told by agent Ron Gospodarek, Abbott's former DEA supervisor in Houston. Gospodarek sounded surprised when I replied that Abbott was in the Seagoville federal prison, near Dallas. He explained that secrecy is essential for the protection of informants' confidentiality.

It is hard to see how this objection applies to Abbott, whose identity as an informant has been a matter of public record since 1983 and who had signed my freedom-of-information request asking the agency to send me his files. A couple of months after I filed my request, the DEA said it needed $176 from me to complete processing and that "even upon receipt of the entire search fee, the Drug Enforcement Administration cannot guarantee that any documents will be made available to you."

Responses of this sort are typical from the DEA, renowned as the most secretive domestic agency in Washington. The simplest requests for information are routinely stonewalled or referred to the DEA's "Freedom of Information" section, where they may be censored, obstructed, and delayed for months. In 1982, the DEA issued a 104-page report criticizing the Freedom of Information Act for inhibiting its undercover activities.

Journalists who attempt to interview DEA employees are commonly asked at the outset whether their articles will be friendly or hostile. Those with potentially embarrassing inquiries are often put off with the excuse that the DEA must protect the confidentiality of its informants. After sending a $44 down payment, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a heavily censored copy of Abbott's files, which were made available because he had himself made a similar request several months previously.

During a six-month investigation of DEA activities, sources repeatedly told me that the agency fears public scrutiny because it might well expose extensive misconduct. The DEA is an agency whose modus operandi inevitably violates normal standards of human decency. It is at war not on foreign attackers, nor yet on domestic violence or terrorism, but rather on a basically nonviolent minority—the 25 million Americans who are users of illegal drugs.

Under the aegis of President Ronald Reagan and Attorney General Edwin Meese, the DEA has pursued increasingly aggressive and unscrupulous tactics of entrapment, seizure, surveillance, and paramilitary violence. Thanks to public antidrug hysteria, a compliant Congress, an uncritical press, and a court system increasingly dominated by Reaganite judges, the DEA has enjoyed virtual carte blanche to trample on individuals' rights. Like the CIA and FBI of the 1960s, the DEA has become a law unto itself, an agency out of control.

At first, Basil Abbott's status as a DEA informant gave him a charmed life as a dealer. He says that three times he was arrested on drug charges by local police, then released because of his DEA connections. (DEA files confirm that on at least one occasion in 1974 Abbott was arrested for the sale of ten ounces of Quaaludin powder in Houston and that charges were dismissed when he agreed to cooperate in initiating a case against the supplier.)

In 1977, however, Abbott's relationship with the DEA began to sour. He irked his superiors by demanding higher pay in the form of a percentage of the value of drugs and assets seized in raids. And he failed to provide crucial testimony in a methamphetamine case.

The case involved a Boulder, Colorado, drug ring that had agreed to meet Abbott in a public park. The meeting was supposed to be a "controlled buy." The DEA would search Abbott before he joined the dealers. Then, when he returned, the very fact that he had drugs on him, plus his testimony, would prove he had bought them. From the DEA's point of view, everything went according to plan—until the case got to court.

"At the court trial, [he] could not remember any of the details of the buy or who had handed the drugs to him," the agency's files read. "Since the transaction was a controlled purchase by the Cooperating Individual, his testimony was crucial."

Abbott, however, claims the deal was actually a set-up, or "plant." He says a DEA agent instructed him to plant the speed on the group after its members prudently refused to sell him drugs. He stashed the speed in the bushes, he says, then retrieved it before rejoining his DEA comrades.

"I had to testify in court," Abbott says. "The prosecutor and DEA wanted me to lie. I was afraid of perjuring myself." Whatever his reasons, he wouldn't testify, and the case was dismissed.

In January 1978, shortly after this incident, the DEA officially blacklisted Abbott for "unsatisfactory cooperation." This did not prevent him, however, from continuing to consort with DEA agents or from claiming to be an informant.

Abbott's career took a confusing twist when he became involved with agent Bill Coller, a supervisor of the DEA's air operations. An ace pilot, Coller also had a penchant for drug smuggling. He knew all of the techniques for evading Customs surveillance, having been trained in advanced flying maneuvers for DEA missions.

Sources familiar with the case say the two men started doing business together in 1979. Abbott could get cocaine and marijuana through connections in Latin America; Coller flew the drugs back. Over the next few years, Coller smuggled extensively with numerous associates. "He was good at it," recalls one of them, Larry Lewis. "He was one of the best pilots I've ever seen."

Like many narcs, Coller suffered a classic case of role reversal. "The evolution from idealistic agent to smuggler was extremely insidious," he recalls. "You didn't even know what was happening." The temptations are obvious. Narcs are constantly rubbing elbows with illegal money and drugs, and it is only natural that they should want to share in the profits. Role reversal is common enough to be regarded as something of an occupational hazard. It can even improve job performance. After becoming a smuggler, says Bill Coller, "I was a much better agent." Role reversal by its agents, however, is one lawless activity that the DEA can't afford to tolerate.

The DEA came after Abbott, then Coller, in 1983 as one by one their various smuggling associates were arrested and turned snitch. While he was wanted by the DEA, Abbott was apprehended by Mexican police in Cancun. DEA agent Richard Braziel of Austin, Texas, and U.S. Attorney John Murphy of San Antonio came down with two other DEA agents to interrogate Abbott and take him back to the States for prosecution on drug charges.

Abbott claims the Mexicans tortured him after he refused to talk when interrogated by the DEA agents and Murphy. He says agent Braziel told the Mexicans, "Beat him up good," then departed with his companions. Thereupon, Abbott says, the Mexicans beat him up, kicked him, and poured soda water down his nose until "it felt like my head was going to explode." He says the DEA officials returned the next morning to renew their interrogation, after which he was beaten again. A few weeks later, Abbott was returned to the United States, where he was treated for medical problems allegedly from his beating.

U.S. Attorney Murphy denies any knowledge of Abbott's alleged torture, though he says he did visit Abbott in jail. Agent Braziel refuses to comment on Abbott's case, saying, "I cannot acknowledge that I know what you're talking about."

Since the mid-1970s, the DEA has been legally prohibited from engaging in police activities in foreign countries. But investigation indicates that many DEA agents are impatient with the formalities of U.S. law. "Abbott's story sounds accurate, based on my experience," says Coller. "Agents feel totally free to utilize information gained from foreign police by unsavory means, but to protect themselves, they try not to be present at beatings."

In the Abbott and Coller cases, the DEA managed to minimize embarrassing publicity by offering plea bargains. Neither man was ever brought to trial, and their connections were obscured by prosecuting them on different charges. Abbott went to court expecting to plead guilty to marijuana smuggling. But, at the last minute, the DEA changed its offer. At an extraordinary, secretive courtroom conference, conducted in whispers so the press would not hear, Abbott agreed to a more serious cocaine smuggling charge. "In all my years of practice," says his former attorney, Tex McConathy, "I've never seen a federal court where I was called to the bench and had to whisper."

Abbott is angry that he received a stiffer sentence than Coller (five years plus 15 years special parole). He fought, but ultimately lost, a long legal battle for a retrial. "They had trained me for years to do what I was doing," he complains. "Then they dropped me like a hot potato."

Coller was allowed to plead guilty to a single count of marijuana smuggling and sentenced to three years plus two years special parole. The full details of his activities never reached public light. As part of his plea bargain, Coller gave the DEA a full debriefing, the contents of which have been sealed by the government on the usual grounds that they would endanger DEA operations.

From the conventional point of view, Coller's activities were clearly illegal and reprehensible—treason in the war on drugs. Yet the deeper one digs into DEA operations, the more one is led to question the morality of the war itself. Coller, who is now out of prison and working in the construction business, says he has come "180 degrees" from where he started out and is glad to be out of the agency: "It's a sad way to make a living, it really is, running around to bars every night and lying and seducing people into criminal acts. In the beginning it's just a game, but if you're a thinking agent, it really bothers you what you do. I seldom met a 'scarface' or violent-type drug criminal like on Miami Vice. The vast majority of the ones I met were simply small-time entrepreneurs trying to make a buck. It really bothered me what I was doing to them, destroying their lives, their families. I look back at it and I'm really sorry. There's so many more worthwhile things I could have been doing."

Despite cases like Coller's, many defense attorneys insist that the real problem isn't so much what the DEA does illegally as what it does legally. As the war on drugs has escalated, the courts, Congress, and the Reagan administration have given the the DEA more and more powers to pry into the lives of private citizens.

Court decisions have made it increasingly difficult for defendants to plead entrapment. The Supreme Court has generally disallowed the entrapment defense whenever the prosecution can show that the defendant was "predisposed" to commit the crime. A leading judicial proponent of this doctrine has been the new Chief Justice, William Rehnquist, author of the 1976 landmark decision Hampton v. U.S.

Plaintiff Hampton had been approached in a pool hall by a DEA informant who asked whether he would like to make money on a heroin deal. Hampton expressed interest but avowed that he didn't have any heroin to sell. The informant obligingly supplied heroin obtained through his official connections, then arranged for Hampton to resell it to DEA agents, who arrested him. In a 6–3 decision, the Supreme court upheld Hampton's conviction on the grounds that he was "predisposed" to selling drugs.

In a stinging dissent, Justice William Brennan protested that "the Government is doing nothing less than buying contraband from itself through an intermediary and jailing the intermediary." Brennan cited the famous dissent of Justice Brandeis in the 1928 Olmstead case, in which the court for the first time endorsed wiretapping to enforce Prohibition: "Decency, security, and liberty alike demand that government officials should be subjected to the same rules of conduct that are commands of the citizen.…To declare that in the administration of the criminal law the end justifies the means—to declare that the government may commit crimes in order to secure the conviction of a private criminal—would bring terrible retribution." But these were the dissents.

In the wake of the Hampton decision, some DEA agents pride themselves on "creating a predisposition" in a suspect. "In sting operations, agents will create false situations to get you involved," explains Coller. "They might tell you, 'Just offload this truck.' Then they get your friends involved." To nail down the case, agents may secretly tape a conversation carefully orchestrated to sound as incriminating as possible. Using leading questions, an agent or informant can "paraphase, restate, and say things like, 'Am I right?' in order to get the other person to adopt what's asked," explains Houston attorney Sam Guiberson, an expert on entrapment.

The DEA has stretched its techniques of legally sanctioned entrapment in recent years by getting progressively more outlandish test cases approved by the courts. In a prize case, the DEA was upheld in a 1980 sting that caught Thomas Tobias. Court records, interviews, and correspondence with Tobias reveal the lengths to which the DEA will go.

Tobias, a 26-year-old house painter, had been suffering financial problems due to a cocaine habit. These he naively sought to resolve by making his own cocaine. After looking up the ingredients in the library, he sent away for them to a certain "Precision Chemical Company" advertised in High Times, the drug culture magazine. Readers are invited to guess the secret identity of "Precision Chemical Co."

Uneducated in chemistry, Tobias didn't know that cocaine synthesis requires sophisticated chemical techniques. Much to his surprise, when he phoned Precision Chemical about his order, Tobias was asked whether he wanted to make cocaine and was advised that, if so, the task would no doubt be beyond his ability. Disappointed, he duly canceled his order.

What happened next is disputed, since the DEA did not bother to tape the conversation. According to Tobias, the DEA asked whether he would be interested in an easier way to make money. According to the DEA, Tobias asked whether they knew an easier way to make money. In either case, it is undisputed that the DEA helpfully suggested that Tobias make "dummy dust" (otherwise known as angel dust, or PCP), offering to send him complete supplies and instructions for $500. Tobias agreed and soon received a shipment of chemicals on his doorstep at the unexplained discount price of $100.

Working with nothing but a Mason jar and kitchen pot, Tobias encountered difficulties in his efforts to make PCP. According to the court record, he phoned back 13 times for step-by-step instructions cheerfully supplied by a DEA agent. "Why did he not discourage me instead of encouraging me?" asks Tobias. "No one told me the chemicals were flammable." When he reached the last step, at which his concoction was supposed to turn into a powdery dust, he ended up with nothing but what he describes as an "unsalable gob of goo." Then the DEA agents came to the door and busted him.

Tobias and his attorney were shocked when he was convicted and sentenced to 15 years. Because Tobias was found with enough chemicals for 300,000 doses, prosecutors asked for a stiff sentence—despite the fact that it was the DEA that had specified the size of the order. Tobias was convicted of possession of and intent to distribute a controlled substance, even though the drug was actually unsalable because of his chemical ineptitude. He was also found guilty of conspiracy to manufacture a controlled substance, though his only co-conspirators were DEA agents, unindicted and still at large.

In a landmark decision, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Tobias's conviction but ordered a resentencing. The majority ruled that the case "set the outer limits to which the government may go in the quest to ferret out and prosecute crimes." The DEA has taken full advantage of the decision, treating the Tobias case as a model for further sting operations, despite charges that it is creating crimes by providing normally unavailable chemicals.

The DEA also attacks drug crime by selling illegal drugs themselves. Advertising its supplies through its network of informers, it offers confiscated drugs for sale, then busts buyers when they come to pick up the goods. Where necessary, the DEA uses high-pressure sales tactics. In a 1984 conspiracy case, DEA agents talked Matthew Brozyna into a $1.3-million, five-ton marijuana deal. In court, the agents testified that they tried to pump up the deal as high as possible. When Brozyna asked to break up the deal into smaller loads, agent Ted Weed turned him down quoting the Godfather, "Yeah, well, we'll cut you a deal. You can't refuse."

Offenders can even be convicted of drug crimes without possessing any drugs at all. Elijio Briceno, former minister of energy and communications of Belize, was arrested in April 1985 after accepting front money from DEA agents in Miami for alleged drugs that he never delivered. Briceno's troubles began the previous October, while he was still serving in the government of Belize, a nation that had attracted the hostility of the Reagan administration for its easygoing attitude toward marijuana. Briceno in particular had offended the DEA by officially opposing its request to spray marijuana fields with poisonous paraquat. (In Belize, the DEA is not hampered by Environmental Protection Agency restrictions).

While Briceno was still in office, DEA agent Robert Ridler approached Briceno, asking to buy cocaine or marijuana. When Briceno expressed interest, the DEA importuned him to come to the United States with some goods. According to Briceno's attorney, Reber Boult, Briceno put off the DEA, insisting that they first bring the money to him. Weeks of haggling ensued, during which Briceno's party lost the 1984 elections and Briceno began facing financial difficulties. At last the DEA persuaded him to fly to Miami in return for some $32,400.

Briceno was arrested when he picked up the cash. He was charged with three counts of conspiracy and 20 counts of using the telephone to commit a federal felony (punishable by four years each); the DEA itself had initiated at least 16 of the calls, and by telephoning Briceno from North Carolina, it managed to get Briceno tried in Wilmington, one of the most conservative and conviction-prone districts in the country.

In court, attorney Boult argued that his client had no intention of delivering drugs but was only angling for front money, a not-uncommon scam in Belize. While DEA spokesmen publicly portrayed Briceno as a "large-scale marijuana dealer," Boult argued that he had none of the resources, ability, or wealth of a major dealer. According to a witness's sworn statement, DEA agent Russell Reina had admitted privately that "Briceno was not a kingpin."

Nevertheless, Briceno was sentenced to seven years and a $50,000 fine, much to the outrage of fellow Belizeans. More than 3,000 of his fellow citizens signed a petition for his release. "Belizeans are suddenly coming to realize that the U.S. government, through its DEA agents, has little or no regard for the constitutional rights of our Belizean citizens and our country's sovereignty," opined a columnist in the Belize Times.

On occasion, the DEA has forcibly abducted suspects from foreign countries by extralegal means. Court records reveal that John Zabaneh, a Belizean citizen, was apprehended in November 1985 at the Guatemala City airport by Guatemalan police and two DEA agents. At a court hearing, a companion of Zabaneh, Henry Matthews, testified that a U.S. agent wearing a "Miami Vice" cap had accosted Zabaneh at Guatemalan customs. Zabaneh's attorney says the agent, who was accompanied by three or four Spanish-speaking companions, produced a plastic bag of white powder, which he claimed to have found in Zabaneh's luggage. When Zabaneh replied that he didn't have any luggage, the agent dropped the subject.

Zabaneh and his companions were then ordered into an airport room, where Zabaneh was strip searched, handcuffed and held overnight. Without a warrant or extradition request, the agents then flew him to Houston, where he was arrested not for committing a crime on U.S. soil but for being the Belizean connection in a New Orleans marijuana case. Neither Guatemala nor Belize protested his abduction.

The U.S. attorney in the case denies Matthews's story and says that no agent like the one he described was present. Neither of the DEA agents who were present ever testified in court—the court record says they were out of the country and therefore unavailable. But their official DEA report claimed that they were not actively involved in the arrest and merely took custody of Zabaneh from the Guatemalans, who admittedly acted at the DEA's instigation.

U.S. magistrate William Sanderson, Jr., ruled that the DEA agents had in fact participated in the arrest, even though they had no legal authority to do so. But he decided that the legality of the DEA's actions had no legal bearing on Zabaneh's case. Sanderson ruled that Zabaneh should be held for trial because U.S. law has long held that defendants can be tried no matter how they are brought into a court's jurisdiction, under what is known as the "Ker-Frisbie" doctrine. Zabaneh was convicted on marijuana charges. The two DEA agents are still at large.

Since the Reagan administration has shown no interest in disciplining agents for illegal arrests abroad, the upshot of the Ker-Frisbie doctrine is that DEA agents have every incentive to kidnap foreign suspects whenever possible.

Investigation of the DEA's methods turns up one of the most ominous recent trends in drug enforcement—the progressive erosion of property rights. The DEA regularly exercises its power to seize vehicles used for drug transport. It has acquired an impressive fleet of airplanes and cars, and DEA agents often ride around in the fancy cars seized from smugglers when masquerading as dealers.

Because the rules of evidence make it easier for the government to confiscate property than to convict drug-felony defendants, it is not uncommon that a vehicle is confiscated but its driver gets off. The quantity of drugs need not matter. Coller says he once helped the DEA seize a Piper Seneca airplane with one-twentieth of a gram of pot dust; the court, he says, upheld the seizure.

Congress has enacted progressively more sweeping confiscation laws in recent years. Under the Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) and Continuing Criminal Enterprise Act (CCE) of 1970, the government can confiscate all proceeds of organized criminal enterprises, including cash, valuables, businesses, and other private assets. RICO and CCE marked a departure for federal law, overturning a 180-year-old ban on criminal forfeiture of estate—the legal procedure under which lawbreakers forfeit their property to the state instead of merely being sued for back taxes and obligations.

The RICO and CCE forfeiture provisions were dramatically expanded by the Comprehensive Crime Control Act (CCCA) of 1984, which extended confiscation to any drug felony, not just those involving organized crime. The CCCA, aptly passed in the symbolic year 1984, was pushed through in a pre-election rush by House Democrats not wishing to be outdone by Reagan in appearing "tough on crime." Under this law, the government can demand forfeiture not only of the proceeds of drug trafficking, as under RICO, but also of any property used to facilitate illegal drug activity, including houses and land.

As soon as the police have determined there are incriminating drugs on someone's property, the federal marshal can seize it by obtaining a warrant of "probable cause." The owner then has 20 days to file suit to recover the property or forfeits it automatically—whether or not he ultimately is convicted of any crime. The suit is tried under civil procedures, where the state need only produce a "preponderance of evidence," rather than proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The CCCA also lets the government freeze the assets of drug defendants immediately upon indictment to ensure that they do not dispose of them before the trial is over.

So, if you grow marijuana for sale in your backyard, federal prosecutors can seize your house and property whether or not you used "drug money" to purchase them. This draconian provision applies exclusively to drugs, so your home would still be secure if you instead engaged in counterfeiting, extortion, kidnapping, or murder.

To the victims, forfeiture is a chilling experience. In August 1985, police in Ashland, Oregon, raided the home of Kenneth Jaffe and found 143 marijuana plants growing there. They turned the case over to the U.S. attorney, who promptly got a warrant for seizure. Jaffe returned home to find that his house and 5.6 acres of land no longer belonged to him. He had to lease the house back from the government and pay taxes as well as rent to stay there. According to his attorney, Jaffe had acquired the house legitimately with life insurance money from his wife, a murder victim. But, like other defendants, Jaffe had all of his land seized, even though only a portion had been used to grow marijuana. The legality of this procedure is still in question, and recent court decisions indicate that confiscation may eventually be restricted to only the land actually used to grow marijuana.

The DEA boasts that forfeiture statutes have "dealt a devastating blow to the once financially secure drug trafficker." While that may be doubtful, in view of widespread acknowledgment that the DEA's war on drugs is failing, one thing is clear: the forfeiture statutes have handed the DEA the dream of every government bureaucracy, a source of revenue independent of Congress. According to DEA figures, revenue from forfeiture totaled $49 million in fiscal 1985—or about 15 percent of the DEA's $328-million budget—up from $30 million the year before and only $6 million five years earlier. Assets seized from drug traffickers have also included an avocado ranch, Arabian horses, emeralds, and a rock recording studio.

Forfeiture is the latest weapon in the government's ongoing war against marijuana growers in northern California. Originally advertised as a way of attacking large-scale growers with hundreds or thousands of plants, forfeiture has become a weapon against "mom and pop" growers. U.S. Attorney Peter Robinson reports that most of the 19 forfeiture cases in the area have involved 30 to 50 marijuana plants. Defense lawyer Ron Sinoway alleges that 90 percent of the forfeitures have been against growers of less than 100 or so plants.

Last year the government's premier forfeiture attempt backfired when it tried to auction off a 208-acre ranch in Mendocino County, California, that it had confiscated from Rique and Natasha Kuru in exchange for dropping marijuana charges. Local residents offered only two bids—10 cents and 30 pieces of silver. The property, which was heavily mortgaged, reverted to the bank, and the government ended up taking a loss. Prosecutors now seem to be focusing on growers with large capital investments in their homes, usually long-time area residents. Meanwhile, local residents report that clever growers have turned to planting their crops on highly leveraged property, public land, and property belonging to others.

Perhaps the most controversial new aspect of the CCCA is the provision that lets the government claim property back to the time of the crime, not the conviction. Anyone who has received drug money has to forfeit it unless he can establish that he is an "innocent owner." The government has used this principle to sue defense lawyers for fees paid by losing drug defendants, arguing that drug criminals have no right to spend their supposedly ill-gotten money on high-priced legal assistance.

Defense lawyers have raised a storm of protest, claiming that forfeiture of attorneys' fees undermines the constitutional right to counsel. "The government would be the sole arbiter of which lawyers are rewarded and which punished," declares San Francisco attorney Ephraim Margolin. Some courts have agreed. "For the first time in recent years the administration has been put on the defensive because they have gone much too far," says Margolin.

The DEA has used other tactics to undermine the lawyer-client relationship. "There's a trend to use aggressive drug enforcement to warp, distort professional identities," attorney Sam Guiberson, the Houston expert on entrapment, told me.

One of his clients, attorney Mallory Horne, former speaker of the Florida State Senate, was enticed into a drug-money laundering operation by FBI agents posing as accountants. Horne was then offered a plea bargain if he would take an FBI agent into his law firm. The agent would have publicly posed as a legitimate lawyer while actually working in undercover investigations against selected clients. Horne rejected the scheme, denounced the government, and was convicted.

Another of Guiberson's clients, Dennis Bell, was the victim of a scheme in which two of his supposed codefendants were secretly enlisted as informants by a Florida drug agent working for a DEA task force. The idea was to penetrate private discussions with Bell and his lawyer, Joel Dick. Unbeknownst to Bell or Dick, the phony codefendants had been wired for sound so that agents could listen while Bell and Dick discussed defense strategies with them, revealing information that the government could have otherwise obtained only by offering Bell a plea bargain.

In a 1983 attack on lawyer-client privileges, DEA and IRS agents obtained a search warrant against San Diego attorney Philip A. De Massa, a long-time bete noire of the government who was accused of involvement in a marijuana conspiracy. After a three-day search of De Massa's office and home, reported the Los Angeles Times, agents came away with 95 cartons containing 1,100 confidential legal-case files, most unrelated to the drug conspiracy. Agents also seized De Massa's wedding picture and his son's Toronto Maple Leafs t-shirt, whose design an agent thought resembled a marijuana plant. A federal judge issued a restraining order sealing De Massa's files, but not before the DEA had had a few days to comb through them.

The De Massa case provoked an uproar among lawyers. "I think they are creating a reign of terror," California attorney Gerald Uelmen told the Times. "Across the country, we're seeing a lot of attorneys being targeted and questioned about their client relationships, all in the name of cracking down on drug trafficking."

The drug war has also taken its toll on privacy and constitutional rights. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for the first time that police can conduct warrantless searches of private backyards by means of helicopter. In the formerly peaceful countercultural communities of California's remote redwood wilderness, the DEA, with help from state and local police, has been waging the helicopter-propelled Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, or CAMP. Its agents, says defense attorney Sinoway, "used to chant. 'War on Drugs, War on Drugs!' Now they chant, 'Rambo, Rambo!' Their attitude is that the king can do no wrong."

In a suit filed against CAMP, local residents complained of unlawful searches and seizures, violations of privacy, unwarranted and hazardous helicopter surveillance, and outrageous cowboy behavior by agents, who often get carried away in their counter-countercultural offensive. Resident Ben Bertain, for example, testified that CAMP officers cut down seven trees on his land, including "my prized Christmas tree, which I had cared for and trimmed for the Christmas season." Bertain was never charged with a crime.

Nor was anyone in Judy Rolicheck's family. But that didn't stop 25 armed CAMP officers from surrounding their home, holding them at gunpoint for two and a half hours, and shooting a family dog that had the audacity to bark—all without benefit of a search warrant. "It appears," found federal Judge Robert P. Aguilar, "that the nearest marijuana garden was approximately 600 yards away and was not visible from the Rolichecks' property." Aguilar granted a preliminary injunction against CAMP last year and in March ordered that the group be placed under the control of an independent, court-appointed monitor.

An ironic effect of the government's escalating war on drugs has been to increase the opportunities for agents to break the law. Drug cases afford fertile ground for corruption, because the illicit status of drug money makes it easy for agents to steal with impunity. The modus operandi is simple: agents make a raid and lift valuables or drugs in the process. Since most everything a drug dealer owns is subject to confiscation, defendants stand little to gain by protesting the depradations of narcs. If they do, few judges or juries are inclined to believe them. If they don't, the agents may testify in their favor at the trial.

The extent of theft by DEA agents is not easy to ascertain. Rumors of DEA ripoffs abound among drug defendants, but such reports are by nature difficult to verify. Basil Abbott says he heard DEA agents talk about lifting watches and jewelry in raids. "They used to joke about it," he says. In the course of investigating this article, I learned of a more serious case that supports these contentions. A West Coast couple says DEA agents stole tens of thousands of dollars from them in front of other family members but didn't arrest them; the agents assumed, correctly, that the couple wouldn't dare to protest.

Ex-agent Coller insists that he never saw federal agents steal money or personal valuables. But he admits he worked for "a pretty straight office."

As the drug war's failure becomes obvious, many of its partisans are calling for even more of the same: stiffer penalties, even capital punishment. Yet 70 years of history demonstrate that prohibition doesn't make drugs go away and in many ways makes matters worse.

The law creates a fundamental dishonesty by distinguishing between licit and illegal drugs. Throughout my investigation, sources repeatedly noted that DEA agents often drink heavily yet defend their legal form of drug abuse against those who equate it with, for example, smoking marijuana. "Every night agents would drink at the bars and talk about busting some hippie for smoking dope," says Coller, who himself abstains from alcohol and drugs. He adds, "It just doesn't compute. Isn't a bartender a dope dealer?"

Indeed, at least 40,000 Americans die each year from the effects of alcoholism; 35,000 more are victims of alcohol-related accidents and violence. In contrast, while cocaine is reputed to be a "killer drug," only 613 deaths from cocaine addiction were reported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse last year. But the answer, as shown by the history of Prohibition, isn't to outlaw alcohol or other drugs.

Not only does drug prohibition raise the price of drugs and create enormously profitable opportunities for criminal enterprise, it also drives many addicts to crime to pay for their habit. "Drug crime" is a problem created by the law.

So, ultimately, are the DEA's misdeeds, legal and illegal. By sanctioning the use of police powers against market transactions and private behavior, the public gives DEA agents permission to see themselves as crusaders, pursuing "higher" ideals in the name of Society. Laws that punish drug offenses more severely than crimes against individuals reinforce this image. Like crusaders throughout history, DEA agents righteously disregard individuals' rights—or even the law itself—in pursuit of their cause. While younger agents tend to be gung-ho, many veterans fall victim to cynicism or corruption, signs of contempt for laws that are inherently unjust and unenforceable.

Thus agent-turned-smuggler Bill Coller says he came to realize: "The government puts out a lot of bullshit about drugs. I got tired of lying to people about why it's so bad. Thousands of people die from just eating food. We blockaded pot, and people turned to harder drugs like cocaine. It was completely foreseeable. Now the government's trying to control ether because it's used in cocaine. People are switching to benzene, which causes nasal cancer. So who's the greater criminal?"

Dale Gieringer is a writer and policy analyst affiliated with the Decision & Ethics Center in the Department of Engineering-Economic Systems at Stanford University.