The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has been granted temporary authority to conduct covert surveillance and collect intelligence on demonstrators protesting the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, according to an agency memo obtained by reporters for Buzzfeed News. The permission to monitor the activities of protestors comes despite a federal law that limits the DEA to enforcing federal drug statutes.
After protests over Floyd’s death led to clashes between peaceful demonstrators and police and looting in cities across the country, Attorney General William Barr issued a statement on Saturday that the FBI, DEA, U.S. Marshals, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives would be “deployed to support local efforts to enforce federal law.”
On Sunday, DEA Acting Administrator Timothy J. Shea issued the memorandum, writing that Floyd’s death “has spawned widespread protests across the nation, which, in some instances, have included violence and looting. Police agencies in certain areas of the country have struggled to maintain and/or restore order.”
Shea continued by offering legal justification for the request for additional law enforcement and surveillance powers, which was approved by a senior official at the Department of Justice on Sunday afternoon.
“In order for DEA to assist to the maximum extent possible in the federal law enforcement response to protests which devolve into violations of federal law, DEA requests that it be designated to enforce any federal crime committed as a result of protests over the death of George Floyd,” Shea wrote. “DEA requests this authority on a nationwide basis for a period of fourteen days.”
Activists Decry New DEA Powers
The decision to allow the DEA to conduct law enforcement and surveillance operations at demonstrations protesting the killing of Floyd by police is being met with resistance from civil rights groups and drug policy reform advocates alike. Hugh Handeyside, a senior attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said the move by the Department of Justice treads on demonstrators’ rights.
“Drug enforcement agents should not be conducting covert surveillance of protests and First Amendment protected speech,” said Handeyside. “That kind of monitoring and information sharing may well constitute unwarranted investigation of people exercising their constitutional rights to seek justice. The executive branch continues to run headlong in the wrong direction.”
Justin Strekal, the political director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, (NORML), blasted the DEA’s power grab.
“The DEA has long misused its drug enforcement powers, and especially its powers to enforce federal marijuana prohibition, to target dissident groups and populations of color,” Strekal said in a press release on Wednesday. “Therefore, it is hardly a surprise that this agency is seeking to greatly expand its power and scope during these tumultuous times to further target those who have been disproportionality impacted by both police misconduct and the war on drugs and are daring to speak out against it.”
Strekal also warned protestors participating in demonstrations to be aware that their actions could be under surveillance by the DEA and encouraged them to leave their weed at home.
“Despite changes in the legal status of cannabis in the majority of US jurisdictions, marijuana possession and use remains a violation of federal law,” he said. “The DEA possesses the power to strictly enforce these violations of law. Because we know that the DEA is playing a more prominent role in surveilling these activities and taking law enforcement actions, NORML reminds anyone participating in these events to refrain from the possession or use of cannabis while doing so.”
“NORML will continue to demand an end to marijuana criminalization in the United States, and we will continue to be a critical voice against the DEA and other groups who misuse this prohibition as a pretext to clamp down on civil liberties, including the exercising of the First Amendment,” Strekal concluded.