October 23, 2021

DEA’s Anne Milgram reaches out to PERF on opioid deaths, marijuana, and violent crime


Dear PERF member,

Anne Milgram, whom many of you know, has taken over as head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, and she brings an impressive resume. She began her legal career as a prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, then became a federal prosecutor specializing in human trafficking crimes, and served as New Jersey’s Attorney General.

Anne made history as AG in 2008 when she called a 36-year-old member of the Camden Police Department and told him two things.  First, she said, “I’m appointing you the new chief of police.” And then she said, “The killing in Camden has got to stop.”

That young man was Scott Thomson, who empowered the Camden community to take back their neighborhoods, reducing homicides by 70%. Scott also served as PERF President from 2015 to 2019. So we know that Anne knows how to identify talent.

Since Anne became DEA Administrator in June, one of her priorities has been to get closer to law enforcement in the field nationally. So in her typical “take charge” fashion, Anne reached out to PERF, and we put together a cross-section of police leaders from around the country, for a Webex call with Anne and her top staff.

For an hour this past Wednesday, the police chiefs told the DEA’s top leaders about what they’re currently facing with drug issues, and how DEA can support local police in their world.

Several themes emerged:

Fentanyl overdose deaths are out of control:   There were 93,000 overdose deaths last year, and more than 60% of them involved fentanyl, according to the CDC. And the numbers keep getting worse. For the 12 months ending on March 31, 2021, the CDC estimates there were 99,000 fatal overdoses.

To put those numbers in perspective, annual drug overdose deaths never reached 10,000 during the 1980s, when the crack cocaine epidemic made headlines.

The police officials on our call noted that overdose deaths far outnumber their homicide deaths. Memphis Assistant Police Chief Don Crowe told us, “So far this year we’ve had 151 fentanyl overdose deaths. That’s a 104% increase over last year. We’ve also had 822 nonfatal overdoses. We’ve prevented many fatalities by administering Narcan.  Every officer in Memphis carries Narcan, and we’ve done that for about three years. We’re deploying Narcan 4 or 5 times a week.”

In Camden County, NJ, Police Chief Gabe Rodriguez said fentanyl continues to be a major issue.
“We recently seized 68 kilos of fentanyl in a stash house,” he said. “Thankfully, that didn’t reach the streets of our city, because it would have caused a lot of deaths. We’re also starting to see a horse tranquilizer called xylazine that’s used as a cutting agent; we just confiscated 22 kilos of that. All of our major crime in Camden has a nexus with gun violence and drugs. We focus on our partnerships with federal, state, and local agencies. We meet every day of the week with our U.S. Attorney and prosecutors, to make sure we’re speaking the same language so we can get these cases prosecuted successfully and get these violent offenders off the streets.”

But increasingly cities are seeing violent crime that is driven by illegal sales of marijuana:  This would surprise many Americans, but it’s what many police chiefs across the country are talking about. Several of the chiefs and deputy chiefs on our call told us that shootings and homicides in their cities are largely a result of marijuana dealing.

Why should marijuana result in violence, when many states and cities have legalized or decriminalized it?  Several reasons:

  • First, even in places where you can buy marijuana legally, it’s often much cheaper to buy it illegally. So the illegal markets are thriving.
  • Second, states regulate how potent legal marijuana can be, and many people buy it illegally because they want a stronger product. 
  • Third, illegal marijuana sales are often arranged online, rather than by organized criminal gangs, so it’s harder for police to investigate marijuana dealers.

“When we get to the scenes of these shootouts, there’s guns and bodies everywhere, and what we find scattered on the ground is marijuana,” said Assistant Chief Crowe of Memphis. “Just this past week, we had a shootout, and there were 20 pounds of marijuana. The marijuana is what spikes our violent crime.”

In Los Angeles, Deputy Police Chief Kris Pitcher said, “Cannabis is a tremendous issue here, both legal and illegal. It is a driver of violence in LA. The illegal grows and dispensaries that we have, in addition to the legal ones, create the opportunity for robberies. We have a lot of murders and shootings by gang members and competitors.”

It’s the same in Baltimore, Deputy Police Commissioner Sheree Briscoe told us. “We are seeing violence related to marijuana,” she said. “A lot of our issues with violence are discords and ‘beefs’ between groups over territory, disrespect related to drug sales, cheating one another, using bad currency, all of the behaviors connected to drug trade.”

Prosecutors need to be brought onboard:   In many cities, the decriminalization or legalization of marijuana has made prosecutors reluctant to prosecute marijuana-related crimes, unless police can connect the illegal marijuana dealing to gun offenses or violence.

The problem, according to police leaders, is that waiting for a shooting to take place before prosecutors get involved makes it more difficult for police to prevent the violence in the first place.

But DEA Administrator Milgram struck a hopeful note, telling the police leaders on our call that the DEA wants to work with local police on cases that involve both drugs and violence. The DEA works to convince prosecutors that some marijuana offenders are threats to public safety.  

Here’s what she told us:

“Our two main focuses right now are how do we reduce overdoses, and how do we reduce drug-related violence. The biggest threat right now is fentanyl. People are dying at record rates. When we see violence driven by fentanyl, meth, marijuana, or other drugs, we will do those cases to make communities safer.”

Anne cited Baltimore as an example of how agencies are collaborating to address both violence and drugs:

“Baltimore has brought everyone together around a list of targets – the repeat violent offenders. That helps with U.S. Attorneys prosecuting cases. We want to do threat assessments around local communities, in terms of what’s driving the violence. We’re pursuing prosecutions and saying, ‘Here’s why this defendant is on our list. It’s not just that he had a bag of narcotics; it’s that our intel tells us he’s going to be the next shooter.’”

“We have some incredible assets to offer local police, including the ability to go deep on investigations. We do a lot of wires, a lot of surveillance, and we also have a lot of intel. So the question is how can we help you, and how can we all together make our communities safer.”

I think we are going to see some innovative strategies from Administrator Milgram at DEA. If she can do for the country what she did with Camden, we may just begin to turn this terrible opioid epidemic around, while also reducing violent crime. She has the right stuff, and we wish her the best!