Fast Facts

The Drug Enforcement Administration has recently obligated, on average, over $17 million a year to help state and local agencies eradicate millions of illegal marijuana plants. Agencies in states where marijuana is legal also received funds because illegal growing can occur on national forests or trespassed farm lands.

Much of these funds were used for helicopter support and overtime, reflecting long days in remote areas.

We found that agencies inconsistently reported data to DEA, making it difficult for DEA to reliably assess program performance.

We recommended that DEA improve its oversight of program performance and spending.

Hauling out freshly chopped marijuana plants for disposal

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This is a photo of a helicopter in flight with a large batch of marijuana plants hanging beneath it.

 

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) obligated over $17 million annually on average from 2015 through 2018 to its Domestic Cannabis Eradication/ Suppression Program (DCE/SP)—which supports participating state and local law enforcement agencies' efforts to eradicate illegal marijuana. DEA obligated funds to participating agencies in states with and without marijuana legalization laws. Participating agencies expended the majority of funds on aviation support and overtime (see fig. below). Officials told GAO they expended funds to help eradicate marijuana that was not in compliance with state and local marijuana laws. For example, officials in California—a state with medical and recreational marijuana legalization laws—said that all of their eradication occurs on public lands such as national forests, or private land that had been trespassed upon. In total, agencies have eradicated several million plants annually in recent years.

Participating Agencies' Top Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program (DCE/SP) Expenditures in Recent Years

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DEA oversees participating agencies' compliance with program expenditure requirements in various ways, but does not consistently collect supporting documentation for expenditure reports. DEA field officials collect varying levels of documentation, and headquarters officials were not aware of these varying practices. DEA officials said they are now working to address this issue, but they have not developed a plan with specific actions and time frames for completion. By developing and implementing such a plan, DEA could have greater assurance that funds are being expended appropriately.

DEA collects information on program activities to help manage DCE/SP, such as number of plants eradicated. However, participating agencies GAO spoke with have practices for reporting some program activities that differ from DEA's guidance due to varying interpretations of the guidance. As a result this information is neither fully accurate nor reliable for assessing program performance. Also, DEA has not clearly documented all of its program goals or developed performance measures to assess progress toward those goals. Improving the reliability of the information it collects, clearly documenting all program goals, and developing performance measures could provide DEA with the information it needs to manage the program more effectively.

Why GAO Did This Study

Marijuana is generally illegal under federal law. Nonetheless, an increasing number of states have legalized medical or recreational marijuana under state law. However, in these states, some marijuana-related activity may still be illegal under state law. Since 1981, DEA's DCE/SP has provided financial support to participating state and local agencies for their efforts to eradicate illegal marijuana.

GAO was asked to review DEA's DCE/SP. This report examines (1) DCE/SP funding and expenditures in recent years, (2) how DEA ensures that participating agencies expend funds in accordance with program requirements, and (3) how DEA uses performance assessment to help manage DCE/SP. GAO analyzed DCE/SP guidance, and expenditure and performance information from 2015 through fiscal year 2017, and evaluated DEA's oversight and performance management efforts against internal control standards. GAO also interviewed officials from DEA, the U.S. Forest Service, and participating agencies in six states, which GAO selected to include varying levels of DCE/SP funding and numbers of marijuana grow sites eradicated in recent years.

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Recommendations

GAO is making four recommendations, including that DEA develop a plan to ensure the collection of consistent documentation of expenditures, clarify its guidance for reporting program activities, document all of its program goals, and develop performance measures. DEA concurred with the recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Drug Enforcement Administration 1. The DEA Administrator should develop and implement a plan with specific actions and time frames to ensure that regional contractors are implementing DEA's requirement for collecting documentation supporting participating agencies' DCE/SP program expenditures in the intended manner. (Recommendation 1)
Closed - Implemented
In October 2018, DEA concurred with this recommendation and stated that it would take measures to ensure that regional contractors are documenting and reporting expenditures in accordance with policy. In September 2019, DEA officials provided documentation of the program's annual compliance monitoring process, and said they conducted site visits to ensure regional contractors are documenting and reporting DCE/SP expenditures in accordance with the revised guidance. In November 2019, officials told us that they will communicate these updated reporting requirements to regional contractors through various mechanisms, including conference calls, and regional contractors will communicate these updated requirements to participating agencies to help ensure compliance. In addition, in May 2020, DEA officials provided to us an updated 2020 DCE/SP Handbook, which included revisions to the program expenditure reporting requirements and timeframes. These actions meet the intent of our recommendation. As a result, the recommendation is closed as implemented.
Drug Enforcement Administration 2. The DEA Administrator should clarify DCE/SP guidance on the eradication and suppression activities that participating agencies are required to report, and communicate it to participating agencies and DEA officials responsible for implementing DCE/SP. (Recommendation 2)
Closed - Implemented
In November 2018, we reported that participating agencies had practices for reporting information on some of their marijuana eradication and suppression activities that differed from DEA's written guidance. Moreover, we found that stakeholders at all levels had varying understandings of what participating agencies were required to report to DEA for DCE/SP. As a result, the information DEA collected was not fully reliable for the purpose of assessing program performance. We recommended that DEA clarify its DCE/SP guidance on the eradication and suppression activities that participating agencies are required to report, and communicate it to participating agencies and DEA officials responsible for implementing DCE/SP. In October 2018, DEA concurred with this recommendation and reported plans to update the DCE/SP Handbook so that the handbook clearly articulates the requirements and methods for reporting eradication and suppression data, and conduct site visits and conference calls to communicate the requirements. In August 2019, DEA officials provided to us an updated 2019 DCE/SP Handbook which includes revisions to the requirements and methods for the collection, categorization, and reporting of eradication and suppression data. DEA officials said they communicated the revised guidance to participating agencies and contract personnel through a series of site visits and conference calls. These actions meet the intent of our recommendation. As a result, the recommendation is closed as implemented.
Drug Enforcement Administration 3. The DEA Administrator should clearly document all DCE/SP program goals. (Recommendation 3)
Closed - Implemented
In October 2018, DEA concurred with this recommendation and reported plans to amend and document program goals and ensure that they are explicitly included in the DCE/SP Handbook and budget submissions. In May 2020, DEA officials provided to us an updated 2020 DCE/SP Handbook which lists the program's seven goals. These actions meet the intent of our recommendation. As a result, the recommendation is closed as implemented.
Drug Enforcement Administration 4. The DEA Administrator should develop DCE/SP performance measures with baselines, targets, and linkage to program goals. (Recommendation 4)
Closed - Implemented
In October 2018, DEA concurred with this recommendation and stated that it had identified performance measures for DCE/SP and convened an ongoing working group to better inform DCE/SP processes and management decision-making. In May 2020, DEA officials documented performance indicators that generally align with its program goals. In addition, DEA reported plans to establish performance baselines, and targets for some of the performance indicators. These actions meet the intent of our recommendation. As a result, the recommendation is closed as implemented.

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