Capital Conversations: Uttam Dhillon, Acting Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration

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Join us as Uttam Dhillon, the Acting Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, discusses the response to COVID-19, as well as the pressing issues of the opioid epidemic in America, the dangerous threat from fentanyl, and the proliferation of methamphetamine. He will also review the threat from Mexican Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs), the reduction of violent crime associated with drugs, and drug abuse prevention.    


Uttam Dhillon, Acting Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration


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Event Transcript



Dean Reuter:  Welcome to Teleforum, a podcast of The Federalist Society Practice Groups. I'm Dean Reuter, Vice President, General Counsel, and Director of Practice Groups at The Federalist Society. For exclusive access to live recordings of Practice Group teleforum calls, become a Federalist Society member today at



Dean Reuter: Welcome to a special Capital Conversations edition of The Federalist Society's Practice Group teleforum conference call, as today we discuss the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. I'm Dean Reuter, Vice President and General Counsel at The Federalist Society.


      As always, please note that all expressions of opinion are those of the expert on today's call and this call is being recorded for use as a podcast later and will likely be transcribed.


      We're very pleased to have with us today Uttam Dhillon. He's the acting Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Agency. He's going to speak to us, give us opening remarks of about 15 or 20 minutes, maybe a bit longer, but that's the range. After that, as always, we'll be looking to the audience for questions, so please have those in mind for when we get to that portion of the program. But with that, Uttam Dhillon, the floor is yours.


Uttam Dhillon:  Thanks Dean. Good afternoon to everyone and thank you for inviting me to talk about what the great men and women of the Drug Enforcement Administration are doing during this difficult time.


      I do want to begin by assuring everyone that DEA continues to perform its essential functions of enforcing the nation's drug laws and, of course, supporting our international partners in counter-narcotics investigations. But since it's obviously on everybody's mind, and since DEA may be somewhat unique as a law enforcement agency with a robust regulatory function that has an impact on the pandemic, I thought I'd begin by talking about what DEA's doing regarding the pandemic, and then move on to some of our law enforcement initiatives.


      DEA, and our partners across the federal government, are working very hard to ensure that Americans continue to have access to medications and all the controlled substances that they need. We've established a small team of policy and regulatory experts to very quickly review and address all requests to grant temporary exceptions to our regulations. That will ensure continuity of care to patients who need access to controlled substances during the pandemic. This theme is in contact with SAMHSA to address the needs for those with opioid use disorder. We're also working with the association representing drug distributors nationwide on a variety of issues aimed at ensuring the timely delivery of controlled substances from their point of production, to their delivery, to the very brave men and women who are on the front lines treating patients in hospitals and clinics nationwide.


      We're carefully monitoring reports of drug shortages through our daily contact with FDA's drug shortage team. And just three days ago, on April 7th, we announced the increase of the aggregate production quotas available to pharmaceutical manufacturers for the production of controlled substance medications that are in very high demand due to the coronavirus pandemic. And DEA will also approve increases in imports of medications necessary for patients on ventilators.


      We've made accommodations to support every major segment of the supply chain to include manufacturers, distributors, prescribers, and dispensers. Working with SAMHSA, we've waived certain parts of its regulations relating to narcotic treatment programs called NTPs to ensure the patients could receive medication, even if they're unable to leave their homes. This waiver will allow patients to take home doses of methadone and NTP staff or law enforcement, or even the National Guard, to deliver medication to patients in these treatment programs if they're not able to access their treatment programs directly.


      Also, coordinating with HHS, we've developed guidance for the practice of telemedicine for patients in need of medication-assisted treatment, or MAT. For example, during the public health emergency, patients can communicate with their prescriber through a two-way audiovisual communication system. And we're trying to remain as flexible as possible during the crisis, so we've authorized DataWay practitioners to prescribe epinephrine over the telephone as a way to provide medication-assisted treatment to quarantine patients who don't have access to the internet, the ability to still obtain the drugs they need.


      We recognize that during the public health emergency, narcotic treatment programs may need to maintain larger inventories of certain controlled substances, such as methadone. So DEA and SAMHSA have advised DEA registered distributers the potential for an increase in orders and we've granted an exception to all DEA registered bulk manufacturers to exceed their typical inventory caps to avoid potential production shortages. We've also received inquiries of healthcare practitioners, pharmacists, and patients with regard to early refills on prescriptions for controlled substances and we've issued guidance clarifying that practitioners are allowed to issue prescriptions for a 90-day supply of Schedule II controlled substances as long as it's allowed by state law and regulation.


      So the bottom line is, the DEA is on top of this. We're nimble and we'll ensure that there are no regulatory or bureaucratic roadblocks that prevent any American from getting any of the medications that they need to fight the pandemic.


      I'd like, now, to turn to some of our law enforcement initiatives and I'll begin by describing what we've done in just the last month. About 10 days ago, on March 31st, DEA helped to uncover a very elaborate cross-border tunnel in San Diego used for trafficking drugs from Mexico to the U.S. It was more than 200 — 2,000 feet, I'm sorry, long. And federal agents seized almost 4,400 combined pounds of cocaine, methamphetamine, heroine, marijuana, and fentanyl with an estimated street value of almost $30 million. On March 26th, the Attorney General announced narco-terrorism, drug trafficking, and weapons charges against former Venezuelan President Maduro and other high-ranking Venezuelan government officials. DEA investigations played a major role in supporting these indictments.


      On March 20th, DEA released a notice of proposed rulemaking that would further expand opportunities for scientific and medical research on marijuana. And on March 11th, I was proud to announce the results of Project Python, which was a combined federal, state, and local DEA led operation designed to disrupt the activities of the cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, commonly known as CJNG. This project, this operation resulted in more than 700 arrests and the seizure of 15,000 kilograms of methamphetamine, more than 4500 kilograms of cocaine, nearly 1,150 kilograms of heroin, and 132 kilograms of fentanyl and the seizure of more than $22 million in money and assets.


      So I wanted to talk about the things we've just been doing in the last month, or so, to emphasize that we're not letting up during the pandemic. DEA continues to aggressively attack drug traffickers throughout the world during this difficult time.


      But I'd like to now turn to a bit of good news on the opioid crisis front. Recently, the Centers for Disease Control released the latest drug overdose death statistics for 2018. And they showed that overdose deaths declined over 4 percent overall, but with even great decreases of over 13 percent from overdoses resulting from controlled prescription opioids. This is really important because it's the first time in nearly 30 years that we've seen a decrease in overdose deaths. And it's a significant achievement that we believe reflects on a lot of hard work by DEA and all of our partners.


      So how did we do it? So we think there were a number of factors. First, DEA reduced the aggregate production quotas for opioids; that is the amount of opioids that manufacturers can make, by 54 percent since 2016. This has really drastically removed the amount of opioids available for diversion. And as I mentioned earlier, we just increased the quota for certain of these drugs needed to fight the pandemic. But even with these increases, our overall decrease will only be reduced by 2 percent. So we'll still be looking at about 52 percent overall decrease, even with the recent increases to allow for additional drugs that are needed to fight the pandemic.


      Also, at the start of this administration, the President set a goal of reducing opioid prescriptions by about 30 percent and we've achieved that goal. Prescriptions for the seven most frequently abused opioids have declined almost 30 percent since 2017. And prescriptions for the extended dosage units, which are the ones that are the most susceptible to abuse, have declined over 40 percent. Additionally, one of the things we do is we work to educate the Regestrone community to stop potential diversion before it occurs. We have a program called the Pharmaceutical Diversion Awareness Conferences where we've educated over 13,000 pharmacists and other pharmacy personnel all across the country about preemptive steps they can take to prevent diversion. And we're hosting similar events—we will be after the pandemic has past—events for practitioners all across the country, such as doctors, dentists, and veterinarians.


      We’re doing our law enforcement partners as well, so holding more individuals accountable, and corporations accountable for action that fuel the opioid crisis. We pursued a number of civil actions against some of the nation's largest drug distributors. So in fiscal year 2017, we secured more than $194 million in civil penalties, more than the prior seven years combined. And last year, we secured over $35 million in civil penalties.


      Also, last year for the first time ever, we indicted two executives of one of the top 10 pharmaceutical distributors in the U.S. And in January of this year, we indicted several executives for another major distributor. So we are holding individuals both criminally and corporations civilly liable when they don't follow the law and the rules.


      In the past eight years, we've removed an average of about 900 registrations annually. Those are the individuals that DEA registers to handle controlled substances, usually doctors and pharmacists, and that also, of course, prevents the diversion of controlled substances. Over two years ago, DEA exercised its emergency scheduling authority to place an entire class of fentanyl related substances into Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. These are fentanyl analogues and they're extremely deadly and addictive and they've been responsible for a number of overdose deaths in our country. And what we've seen is this emergency scheduling really worked. In the past few years, we've seen a 50 percent decrease in fentanyl-related substances, these analogues, that we've encountered across the United States. That emergency schedule expired on February 6th, but Congress, thankfully, voted to extend it for 15 months. And that extension will give us an opportunity to work with Congress, we hope, to permanently schedule these fentanyl analogues. We believe it's been really effective in attacking the opioid crisis.


      We also have seen evidence that scheduling internationally is effective. In 2019, China instituted its own class-wide ban of fentanyl and fentanyl analogues. And since that time, the amount of fentanyl coming from China has declined fairly precipitously from 2013 to 2019. We've seen a very significant decrease of fentanyl coming from China. We've identified two kinds of fentanyl labs that are operating in Mexico. Those that manufacture counterfeit prescription medications and labs that are synthesizing fentanyl. We're seeing that Mexican cartels are working on ways to produce their own precursor chemicals and fentanyl, due in part to the additional restrictions that China has placed on these substances. We continue to work with our Mexican counterparts to identify and shutdown these clandestine labs and other clandestine labs in Mexico and to dismantle the criminal organizations that operate them.


      We're working with the government of Mexico to control more fentanyl related substances and precursor chemicals to get Mexico to expand their controls over these various precursor chemicals. Which, since we're speaking of Mexico, let me talk a little bit about what we're seeing there. Mexican transnational criminal organizations remain the greatest criminal drug threat to the United States. These cartels are the principle wholesale drug sources for domestic street gangs, which of course, are responsible for the retail distribution of drugs in our communities. The Sinaloa cartel and the CJNG continue to be the most dominant cartels here, in the U.S.  We have quite a few special agents and intel analysts across 11 offices in Mexico and they continue to work with our partners in Mexico to attack these drug trafficking organizations. We work with our Mexican law enforcement partners on interdiction, information sharing, money laundering, asset forfeiture, targeting the command, the control structure of these organizations, and of course, the destruction of laboratories. And last November, we surged additional personnel into Mexico to supplement the excellent work that our people there are already doing. So we are aggressively attacking these drug trafficking organizations in Mexico.


      I think I mentioned earlier, Project Python, an operation that targets CJNG. CJNG is one of the fastest growing transnational criminal organizations in Mexico. And it's among the most prolific methamphetamine producers in the world. It's responsible for a lot of the drugs entering the United States and it's also responsible for a lot of the increased violence in Mexico. So we'll continue to work with our Mexican law enforcement partners to combat these Mexican transnational criminal organizations that are responsible for poisoning our communities with their deadly drugs.


      Also, I want to talk about the recent CDC overdose death report, demonstrates that methamphetamine continues to be a very significant problem. The CDC reported an increase of about 22 percent in methamphetamine overdoses. We're seeing both seizures and arrests increasing dramatically from 2017 to 2019. We've had domestic seizures increase of about 124 percent, whereas arrests have increased about 19 percent so we're seeing some -- we're being successful in attacking methamphetamine, but we're seeing an increase in overdose deaths, which is causing us to really focus on methamphetamine, also. The vast majority of meth entering the U.S. is manufactured in so-called super labs in Mexico. These are labs that are capable of producing multi-ton quantities of meth on a weekly basis.


      In September, I toured one of these super labs in Sinaloa, and it had been staffed by over 40 people. And it was estimated that it could produce about 3,000 cubic grams of methamphetamine per week. So meth is a serious problem and we're aggressively attacking it. I was in China in January and I asked the government in China to schedule meth precursors. They've done good work in scheduling fentanyl precursors, but meth precursors are still something that are not fully scheduled in China. So we've asked them to focus on that to make them illegal, and we're hoping that we can substantially reduce the availability of those precursors to Mexican drug trafficking organizations.


      Pretty much all the meth comes through ports of entry along the southwest border and it's transported by tractor trailers and personal vehicles along our nation's highways, along with other drugs. So one of the things that we've done is, we've launched an operation to attack these transportation hubs. That's called Operation Crystal Shield. And our goal is to attack the locations throughout the country, the cities throughout the country where the drug traffickers stage their distribution in bulk form and get the bulk methamphetamine before it makes its way to our neighborhoods. Right now, we're focused on eight cities and we'll -- these are the eight cities that account for about 75 percent of all the DEA's domestic methamphetamine seizures in 2017.


      So that covers all the major topics I wanted to cover, so if there are any questions, I'd be pleased to answer them. Thank you.


Dean Reuter:  Well terrific. Thank you so much, Administrator Dhillon. Let's open the floor to questions. As a great summary and background, Administrator Dhillon, I'm curious. You covered a lot of territory, but what really keeps you up at night, or really keeps you -- weighs on your mind as the Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Agency?


Uttam Dhillon:  Well, these global drug trafficking organizations present a lot of things that could keep you up at night, but I also -- I think fentanyl is probably, still remains one of our biggest concerns. It is a synthetic opioid, which means it can be manufactured at very large quantities, like methamphetamine. There's no growing cycle for it, like drugs that are reliant upon growth of a plant. And so it's something that can be manufactured very readily and very quickly. And it's so very addictive and so very deadly, that my single, I think, biggest concern is aggressively attacking fentanyl routes, where precursors are coming into Mexico by working with China, and of course, attacking the fentanyl production within Mexico.


Dean Reuter:  You've mentioned, now, Mexico a few times, or the southwest border, interchangeable I suppose, and you've actually given some statistics. I'm wondering, in terms of the entire illicit drug trade, do we know how much comes through the southwest border with Mexico?


Uttam Dhillon:  We know the vast majority of the illicit drugs enter the United States, I'm talking about methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine, fentanyl, marijuana, they're coming across the southwest border. We do know that. And they're marginally brought across the southwest border by Mexican drug trafficking organizations. The two cartels I mentioned are the primary drivers of drugs into the United States.


Dean Reuter:  Interesting. Are their particular gaps in your authorities and the tools you have at DEA? Are there things missing that you could put to good use?


Uttam Dhillon:  I wouldn't necessarily call them gaps in our authority. I mentioned before, the extension of our temporary authority to control fentanyl analogues. That was a two-year authority that we exercised, and Congress extended it for 15 months. But that's something that's really critical for us and so I would say that, in 15 months, if we can't get a permanent extension of that authority, that would be a huge, significant problem for us.


      Let me just put a really fine point on this. Fentanyl analogues are as deadly as fentanyl. The problem is, they are molecularly different from fentanyl and therefore, they're not covered under the Controlled Substances Act. So a drug trafficking organization that can hire a chemist—and they've got plenty of money to do this—who can develop these analogues, can develop drugs as deadly as fentanyl, and very similar to fentanyl.  But they aren't covered. So extending that, making that a permanent extension gives us the ability to attack drug traffickers who are creating these fentanyl analogues. And in fact, what we've seen is, with our temporary scheduling, they don't even bother making the analogues because they know they're going to face the same penalties and they're illegal in the U.S.


      So that's one. The other one, I would say, is lawful access, which is our ability to access encrypted devices. Drug traffickers are, more and more, using encrypted communications means to communicate. We can obtain a warrant to access that information, but because it's encrypted, we can't actually see it. So we need to -- we need legislative changes to allow us to do that. Those would be hugely critical. Those two would be hugely helpful to us.


Dean Reuter:  And I take it both of them, including the encryption and extending to analogues and beyond, that also requires legislation?


Uttam Dhillon:  Yeah, so we'll be working with Congress for a permanent extension on the analogues. And the Attorney General, and the FBI Director, and many others at the Department of Justice, including DEA, we're all working towards a solution to the lawful access issue with Congress.


Dean Reuter:  Very good. We do have a couple audience questions. I've got one more question that I think comes down to something you just mentioned, and that's what you're doing, what DEA is doing with regard to drug abuse prevention. You talked a lot about interdiction and illegal drug use. A lot of times, folks want to concentrate on decreasing demand rather than just attacking supply. Is DEA involved in drug abuse prevention?


Uttam Dhillon:  Yeah, so this administration has taken a whole government approach. You're going to only succeed here if you focus on prevention, treatment, and enforcement. DEA primarily does enforcement. But we also have a prevention role and it's kind of probably traditional. It goes back to the '80s.


      In the '80s, we had a special agent, Enrique "Kiki" Camarena who was kidnapped by Mexican drug traffickers, brutally tortured, and murdered by them. And that elicited for us a couple of things. An opportunity to remember his sacrifice and the sacrifice of all of those who've been fighting drugs for many, many years. And an opportunity to remind young people about Kiki's sacrifice and how important it is for them to understand how dangerous these drugs are. So ever October, we have a red ribbon week where we remember Enrique Camarena and others who have sacrificed. And then we also, within all of our divisions throughout the country, go and educate school kids about the dangers of drug abuse and ask them to take a pledge not to take drugs.


      So that's something that's both a tradition for us. It's an important tradition for us. We were thrilled this last October at our kickoff event -- actually, we were honored to have the First Lady come and be our guest speaker at our kickoff event. It was the first time the First Lady had ever done that. And it's a way of just reminding people that if you don't start taking drugs, you can't become addicted, and you can't be hurt by them. And so we think that's an important role to play.


      We do that. We also do our National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day, which occurs twice a year in April and October. This April, unfortunately, we're having to postpone it because of the pandemic, but we hope to have that soon. And that's an opportunity for Americans all throughout the country to bring their unwanted, unused, and unneeded prescription medications to a location near them for safe disposal. It also ends up being a twice a year reminder to Americans about the dangers of the drugs in their medicine cabinets so that everybody can take a roll in drug prevention. So those are just a couple of the things we do. But even though enforcement is our primary mission, we think that being enforcers, we also should have a voice, an important voice in prevention. And so we do focus on some prevention efforts.


Dean Reuter:  Let's take our first question of the day from the audience. Go ahead, Caller.


Caller 1:  Good afternoon. I had two questions. One of them you already answered about the synthetic analogues, the fentanyl and how important that is in the laws, and that our current laws don't really cover the analogues, so thank you for that. I was wondering about your relationship with the FDA and how you all interact. Is it a good relationship? Is there anything more that the FDA could be doing to help you?


Uttam Dhillon:  Yes. It's a good relationship. There's a lot of connection between us and the FDA. So for example, in order for us to schedule a drug -- let's say that we've seen something that people are using or abusing and we don't think it has any medical benefit, we would ask the HHS—Health and Human Services, and FDA is a part of that—we would ask them to go through the process of examining a drug and conducting their -- going through their process to determine if the drug does, in fact, have any medically known benefits. And they, then, go through that process and make a recommendation for us to schedule. And then we'll schedule it. So that's just one way we work with the FDA. But no, we have, I think, an excellent working relationship with the FDA.


      I should also say that a few months ago, when there was a vaping issue and we were seeing people who were dying from using certain vaping products, there's some areas where the FDA has obviously more exclusive jurisdiction. When it comes to vaping, DEA would only deal with the vaping of illegal substances, like THC, the substance in marijuana. We worked hand and glove with FDA to make sure that our response was coordinated and that we were addressing the issue in a way that was the most effective. So I think we have a great working relationship with the FDA.


Caller 1:  Thank you.


Dean Reuter:  Not unrelated to that, Administrator Dhillon, you've mentioned Mexico, you've mentioned China, now we're talking about coordination with the FDA. I'm wondering what you're doing, if anything, to coordinate with the government of China. If you want to say more about that China, Mexico, Columbia. Does that involve our U.S. State Department? It sounds like, potentially, a complicated set of dynamics there.


Uttam Dhillon:  It is. Let me just say that we're in about 69 countries throughout the world. So DEA is one of, if not the most global law enforcement agency in the world. Each country has its own unique issues. So yes, in China, we have offices in China. We work with Chinese law enforcement. We work with the State Department there. So the issues in China, the biggest issues that we've been dealing with are the precursor chemicals coming from China to Mexico so that the Mexican drug cartels can then make the synthetic drugs that they, then, bring into the U.S. through the southwest border. So we've been working with them.


      We've been successful on the fentanyl precursor front. We've now asked them to focus on the methamphetamine precursor issue. With a country like Columbia, obviously, that's where the majority of cocaine comes from that comes into the United States. So we brokered them on attacking drug trafficking organizations in Columbia. Our goal was always to attack the drug traffickers where they reside, not when they're in the U.S. We work the whole chain. But we always try to start where they're at. So we work with the Columbians, for example, to eradicate coca so that you can't even create cocaine. To interdict cocaine after it's been manufactured and it's being transported within Columbia. To interdict cocaine on the high seas as it's coming to Mexico, or by air as it's leaving South America.


      And with Mexico, of course, we work with them in a number of different ways. The drug trafficking organizations that are bringing the majority of drugs into the U.S. are located in Mexico. So we work as closely as we can with Mexican law enforcement to attack the drug traffickers right there, in Mexico, to identify and destroy laboratories that are making these drugs, to identify the individuals that are engaged in drug trafficking in Mexico and to bring them to justice. So it really just depends.


      Every country has its own unique issues and DEA is in, like I said, almost 70 countries throughout the world. And we engage each country, individually. But that also is what makes us effective because drug trafficking is a global problem. These are global criminal organizations. They don't respect our borders and we have to attack them in that way.


Dean Reuter:  Let's take another call from the audience.


Caller 2:  [Inaudible 00:32:48] prevention, and it really wouldn't come under your jurisdiction, but in Australia, where I lived for many years, there was a teenage boy problem of petrol sniffing. And you could see there was no financial incentive for anyone to be trafficking those drugs because gasoline is there. But then we had a Royal Commission on child sexual abuse and about 8,000 kids came forward, maybe adults now but they were kids, and suddenly we discovered they were the petrol sniffers. In other words, with their harsh family life and situation, it was giving them the need for relief. And I suppose then, they would go on to other drugs. So you mentioned prevention at the school level. But really, if this kid is so in need, I don't think he's going to be taking the pledge, or honoring the pledge, if you know what I mean.


Uttam Dhillon:  You're right. That's not totally something that we deal with. Our prevention activities are not as robust as HHS's for example, and State's, and others. But I do think that prevention is critically important. In my view, if you could convince somebody not to use the drugs at all, then you've really solved a lot of the other problems. You don't have to treat them. And our enforcement job becomes an easier job, right. Because the demand's going to go down.


      Let me actually, if I could also tee off of your question to something else. One of the things we learned with the opioid crisis is that supply matters. We saw parts of the country that were flooded with prescription drugs. And we saw addiction and overdose death rates skyrocket in those areas. That's really important because from the enforcement perspective, we know that when we reduce supply, we also have the opportunity to reduce demand. And so I think that's important. And it's also important on the prevention front. That means that there are people that, if they don’t have access to drugs, we think that they won't actually even start using these illegal drugs. I know that doesn't totally answer your question, but that's a little -- there are other parts of the federal government and state governments that deal more with prevention issues.


Dean Reuter:  Let's take our next call. Go ahead, Caller.


Michael Kielsky:  Yes, thank you. This Michael Kielsky in Arizona. Isn't it time to acknowledge that there exists no enumerated power for the federal government to be doing any of this, as evidenced by the need to pass a constitutional amendment before prohibition, and that the insane war on drugs has been lost decades ago, as again, evidenced by the passage of a constitutional amendment repealing prohibition?


Uttam Dhillon:  Well, I'm going to leave it to constitutional scholars to discuss in more detail the legal issue you raised. Our job is to enforce the federal drug laws, and that's what we do aggressively. I'm going to disagree pretty strongly with the notion that we've "lost the war on drugs," or we lost it a decade ago.


      Look, every single time we take a drug off the street, we save a life. So that -- and let me tell you something, you can't stop all crime, ever. We prosecute -- as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles, I prosecuted bank robbery crimes. I can promise you, even though I was putting people in jail in the '90s, there are still people robbing banks in Los Angeles today. So you're not going to stop all crime. But our goal is to get this down to a point where people, we don't have almost 70,000 Americans dying of drug overdoses every year. And that is an achievable goal.


      This administration has put more money and more energy, and this President has, into attacking the drug crisis than any other administration ever. And the whole of government approach, prevention, treatment, and enforcement is working. And the evidence that it's working is that we've seen overdose deaths go down for the first time in 29 years. So I just can't agree with your premise that attacking this problem is hopeless. It is not. And again, I will say, every ounce of every illegal drug we take off the street prevents somebody from becoming addicted or prevents somebody from dying of a drug overdose. And that's the mission of DEA and it's a mission we're proud to have.


Dean Reuter:  We've got two questions pending now. We seem to be generating more activity in the audience. Let's take another call. Go ahead, Caller.


Annie St-Hilaire (sp): Hi. My name's Annie St-Hilaire and I study at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. And recently, Governor Baker put a ban on the purchase of vaping tools, which I think was a very good initiative and move to make when it came to just preventing people from having access to it. But a lot of people, especially in my generation, they were so upset. They were so livid by this position that he took. And I guess my question is, how can I defend the fact that drugs are not good and any way that we can prevent them from being distributed or dispensed can actually help build, not only our economy, but can help us just go in a more healthy direction with our personal lifestyles and care?


Uttam Dhillon:  Well, I'm not going to really address the vaping issue. That's more of an FDA kind of an issue. But on your question of drugs not being good, for me it's always been pretty straight forward. First of all, people dying from drug overdoses. Many people who die of drug overdoses are overdosing on drugs they didn't even realize they were taking. So we're saying that various drugs are being adulterated with fentanyl, for example. So somebody who buys methamphetamine might have fentanyl in the methamphetamine, didn't realize that, and overdosed because of the fentanyl. That danger alone should, in my view, keep anybody from using any illicit drug. 


      Let me tell you something else, I mentioned earlier that I visited a meth lab in Mexico. When you say lab, Americans often think of a pristine building with big stainless-steel cylinders and people in lab coats. That is not what a meth lab in Mexico looks like. It's literally built in a jungle in dirt by people who, frankly, probably have no expertise at all in doing this. Americans are purchasing this product and putting it in their body and it has -- there's absolutely no control, no quality control, no cleanliness control over these drugs. And it's not just that, it's every illicit drug you get from a street dealer. So the best thing I can tell you is, you don't know what you're buying. And if you don't know what you're buying, don't use it because it can kill you. And also, it is just so impure that if you saw these labs, no American -- we're such fastidious people and yet, I'm stunned that we put drugs into our bodies that are literally made in the dirt in jungles in Mexico and in other parts of the world.


      So that's the best thing I can tell you as to how you can try to convince people not to use drugs. And, of course, the bottom line is, they'll ultimately ruin your life and kill you.


Dean Reuter:  We have got one question pending and what you just said reminds me of the debate I've heard. I've heard more of the debate on efficacy and impurities when it comes to reimportation, or importation of pharmaceutical quality drugs, not even illicit drugs. But drugs you can buy legally here, but presumably you can buy them more cheaply from foreign sources. I have heard discussions, with regard to the reimportation of drugs about the circumstances under which they're manufactured. I don't think people have often thought about the circumstances under which the illicit drugs are manufactured. But thanks for bringing that up. With that, let's take what could be our final question of the call. Go ahead, Caller.


Caller 3:  Good afternoon Administrator, thanks for your time. Several years ago, DEA was rather occupied with taking down a lot of the homegrown and mobile meth labs. And since then, the success that DEA has had, what we've seen is a lot of what you described, the so-called super labs in Mexico that are now producing quantities of methamphetamine, pure methamphetamine that are much, much higher than things we'd seen domestically years ago, where street seizures of almost any quantity are 97, 98, 99 percent pure methamphetamine when we're getting them back from the labs.


      I appreciate the efforts that you're putting in towards stomping out a lot of the precursors that are coming over illegally, or sometimes legally, from China to Mexico. But given the advent of super labs as perhaps an unintended consequence of stamping out the domestic production, what do you see as what might be the next unintended consequence? Or what's the next step that drug manufacturers, illegal narcotics manufacturers will move to once we've been able to stop some of the chemicals coming over? And what do you see DEA is doing to counter whatever may come next as a consequence of whatever success we may have? Thank you.


Uttam Dhillon:  You're welcome, thank you for the question. I think the biggest issue we're going to face over the next few years is the growth of synthetics. So a situation in which drug trafficking organizations can simply manufacture their drugs in these super labs or factories, where they can develop precursor chemicals that aren't reliant upon obtaining the precursor chemicals from overseas, but can actually use chemicals that are readily available and then develop precursors for these drugs from those readily available chemicals. Chemicals that you couldn't control because they're needed for other purposes. They have multiple legitimate purposes. I think that is kind of what the future may hold. And so we're looking at that. We're aware of the fact that that's a situation we could be in


      I want to tell you that one of the things that I did when I got to DEA in July of 2018 was, I asked everyone to start looking forward. Don't just tell me what we're doing now. Don't just tell me what the traffickers are doing now. Tell me what they're going to be doing a year, two years, three years, five years from now, and tell me how we're going to attack it. So we are always looking at how they change their methods. They've got enormous amounts of money. They're very nimble. They're very entrepreneurial. And we are very aware of the fact that they have the ability to alter the methods very quickly and we're focusing on that. So I would say that's our -- as we look forward, that's one of our biggest concerns.


Dean Reuter:  Well, Administrator Dhillon, I think we've had our last question of the day, but I do want to give you a chance to wrap up, express a final thought if you've got one?


Uttam Dhillon:  Sure. Well, I just want to say that notwithstanding everything we're all dealing with, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and I know all federal law enforcement, has not stopped working. We are focused on the needs of the American people during the pandemic and doing everything we can to ensure that they have the drugs they need to be treated effectively. And we're still going after the drug traffickers. So I would just thank you for the opportunity to talk about what we're doing every day during these difficult times and ask everyone to stay safe and to keep your family safe. Thank you very much.


Dean Reuter: Well, thanks to you, Administrator. It's great to have you on. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and giving us some insight into the DEA. We certainly appreciate it. I also want to thank the audience for dialing in and for your questions. And we appreciate those, as always. Please check The Federalist Society's website and monitor your emails for our evolving schedule of teleforum conference calls. But until that next call, we are adjourned. Thank you very much everyone.




Dean Reuter:  Thank you for listening to this episode of teleforum, a podcast of The Federalist Society's Practice Groups. For more information about The Federalist Society, the Practice Groups, and to become a Federalist Society member, please visit our website at