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The DEA thinks you’re a drug dealer – and they’re listening in

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A sign with a DEA badge marks the entrance to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Museum in Arlington, Virginia.Reuters

The New York Times recently revealed that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has been snooping on the phone data of private citizens going all the way back to 1987 through a secret program known as the Hemisphere Project. 

Since 2007, the DEA has had routine access to private information on all U.S. citizens, to give the agency a leg up in a decades-long “war on drugs”. So the war on drugs has wreaked havoc on our privacy as well as hurting respect for the rule of law.

Tensions are already high after the revelations earlier this year about the National Security Administration (NSA) collecting private data. The NSA program has access to phone data going back only five years, in strictly limited circumstances and only available with a warrant.

The DEA surveillance program, on the other hand, gives government agents access to 26 years’ worth of data. Often agents need only an administrative subpoena to look at the data – meaning they don’t have to go to court to get permission to look through your phone records.

While the NSA program keeps U.S. citizens safe from terrorist attacks, the DEA program helps federal agents fight the war on drugs, which costs American lives, freedom and money. Since 1971, taxpayers have paid an estimated $1 trillion to push back against illegal drugs, with no end in sight. The White House requested $25.6 billion in its 2013 budget to continue the fight.

There are now more than 500,000 people serving time in U.S. prisons for non-violent drug offenses.

The societal costs of this war could be even more devastating than the economic costs. There are now more than 500,000 people serving time in U.S. prisons for non-violent drug offenses. Our prison population now dwarfs the rest of the world’s, at 2.2 million. 

Caring for this prison population is expensive. According to Pew Research, in 2011, state corrections cost $52 billion. Yet, by their actions, almost half of all Americans show they believe using marijuana is worth risking jail time. A 2013 Pew Research poll found 48 percent of respondents had smoked marijuana at some point in their lives – 10 percent more than a decade ago.

The global drug trade is worth more than $320 billion. If we followed Portugal’s lead and decriminalized drugs and humanely addressed the problem of addiction, we would cut the cost of the war on drugs and the cost of incarcerating most non-violent Americans. 

If we treated marijuana like alcohol, we could generate billions of dollars in revenue per year and focus law enforcement resources on more important issues. Instead, our government is resorting to underhanded surveillance measures that do little to make us safer and perpetuate the unrest and injustices of the drug war. 

The drug war has been a colossal waste of national resources and a huge failure.

Aside from the billions of taxpayer dollars squandered in the failed effort to push back against illegal drugs, Americans are also being required to give up their right to privacy so the DEA can catch drug dealers. 

This has to stop. 

Let’s end the war on drugs, legalize marijuana and free up our prison space, our tax dollars and our federal agencies to focus on work that actually keeps Americans safe.

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)®, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer electronics companies. His latest book is "Ninja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World's Most Successful Businesses," (William Morrow, January 2013). He is also author of the New York Times bestselling book, “The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream” Contact him on Twitter at @GaryShapiro.