WASHINGTON – Taking a page from a California ballot initiative last year, the Drug Enforcement Administration has decided to focus its attention on prevention and treatment programs that include having field agents work with communities to establish drug courts that allow nonviolent first-time offenders to receive treatment and counseling rather than jail time.
Proposition 36, approved by California voters last year, allowed for first-time, non-violent offenders to be sent to rehabs rather than prisons.
The DEA will also double the number of special agents to work with local police and community groups to set up long-term anti-drug programs. Currently, 22 "demand reduction" agents work with police, churches, schools and other local organizations around the country.
"Agents are tired of dismantling an organization and a year later come back and see that they've moved in again or another organization has," said DEA chief Asa Hutchinson.
The cost of the new operations will be approximately $5 million over the next two years.
Hutchinson stressed that pushing treatment and prevention programs would not diminish the DEA's core law enforcement mission of investigating and arresting drug dealers, a role that will take on more authority if the Federal Bureau of Investigation bails out of such operations to focus more on terrorism prevention.
FBI Director Robert Mueller said last month that the FBI may step back from some investigations if he were convinced other agencies could fill in the gaps.
The DEA has been criticized for focusing its own investigations on homegrown problems such as medical marijuana rather than on the opium trade, which funded the Taliban government in Afghanistan and paid for some of the Al Qaeda network's terrorist training and weapons. AL Qaeda, led by Usama bin Laden, is blamed for the terror attacks on the United States on Sept. 11.
The initiative is designed to expand the DEA's role in treatment and prevention programs but should not create "any competition between the enforcement side and the demand reduction side," Hutchinson said.
The new direction means the agency will no longer wait for a drug bust to send in officers to work with local communities on drug treatment and prevention programs.
Under the new program, "the DEA will combine the enforcement effort with a partnership alongside any existing community coalitions to have a long-lasting impact to reduce demand through drug prevention and treatment programs," according to a program description.
That includes working with communities to set up drug testing programs, drug courts, drug treatment programs and police training.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.