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Federal Drug Enforcement Cracks Down on Meth and Fentanyl

Published May 10, 2023

Federal drug prosecutions have begun to slowly rise after falling for decades. The latest available case-by-case records from all 94 U.S. Attorney offices show that 2,231 defendants were convicted of federal drug offenses in March 2023, the largest recorded monthly total since March of 2016.

On an annual basis, this represents the third year in a row that federal narcotics convictions have increased. If this monthly rate continues for the second half of this fiscal year, convictions could exceed 19,000 by the end of September. See Figure 1.

The type of controlled substance targeted has also shifted, with most increases seen for offenses involving meth and fentanyl. Federal convictions for marijuana are sharply down.

During the first six months of FY 2023, most convictions (96.5%) occurred as the result of guilty pleas. Among convictions, there were only 34 bench trials and 192 jury trials. The average prison sentence for these convicted drug offenders was 81 months. The median prison sentence was 60 months or five years.

In contrast to state and local prosecutions for drug violations, which frequently charge individuals with drug possession rather than sale or drug manufacture, only 51 federal convictions (0.5%) so far this fiscal year were for mere drug possession. Most federal prosecutions were for the manufacture or sale of controlled substances, including by organized crime syndicates.

Figure 1: Criminal Narcotics/Drugs Convictions over the last 20 years

These results are based on an analysis of detailed case-by-case government records obtained by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) under court order after successful litigation against the U.S. Department of Justice under the Freedom of Information Act.

Climbing Prosecutions with the Federal War on Drugs Until the 9/11 Terrorism Attack

A federal “war on drugs” was declared by then President Nixon back in June of 1971, and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was established in 1973 and tasked with combatting illicit drug trafficking. Available figures, however, do not suggest that this so-called “war” at the federal level produced substantial increases in criminal arrests and prosecutions for drugs by U.S. Attorney offices. [1]

Growth, however, did eventually come. In October of 1985 during the latter years of the Reagan administration, the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys adopted a system for more systematically tracking drug matters on a suspect-by-suspect, defendant-by-defendant basis for federal drug referrals, prosecutions, and convictions. Once this tracking system was established, a climb in drug prosecutions and convictions can be seen. See Figure 2. By FY 1998, under President Clinton, federal drug prosecutions grew and were, at that time, higher than current levels.

Drug convictions continued this upward trajectory and finally peaked in FY 2003 during President George W. Bush’s administration. Referrals from DEA investigations of drug trafficking as well as from Organized Crime Task Forces on drugs then dropped. Similar FBI efforts focused on drugs also declined Indeed, those from the DEA- and FBI-lead task forces quickly declined after the 9/11/2001 attack changed federal enforcement priorities.

In the post-9/11 period, federal drug convictions initially declined, then stabilized for a time under President Obama before again dropping. Federal drug convictions fell steadily under President Trump despite the growing opioid epidemic. [2] Fiscal Year 2020 saw the lowest level in recent years with the onset of partial government shutdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic. [3]

While there has been a steady increase in drug prosecution and convictions since FY 2020, It is too soon to tell whether the modest increases during the past 30 months are simply a rebound from these artificially low numbers, or whether growth in federal drug prosecutions will continue.

Figure 2. Time Series of Federal Convictions for Narcotics/Drug Offenses, FY 1986 - FY 2023 (through March)

What Drug Crimes Are Being Targeted by the Feds?

Federal prosecutors exercise a great deal of discretion in deciding which drug offenders and offenses they wish to target, given their limited resources. Federal prosecutions remain a minuscule proportion of the total number prosecuted and convicted at the state and local level for drug crimes. Most federal drug prosecutions are under Title 21 of the U.S. Code under subsections of 841(a), which states:

“Except as authorized by this subchapter, it shall be unlawful for any person knowingly or intentionally—

  • (1) to manufacture, distribute, or dispense, or possess with intent to manufacture, distribute, or dispense, a controlled substance; or
  • (2) to create, distribute, or dispense, or possess with intent to distribute or dispense, a counterfeit substance.”

Convictions involve a wide variety of different controlled substances. See Table 1. The top 10 are shown in Figure 3. By far, convictions for methamphetamine top the list accounting for just under half (46%) of all convictions during the last 30 months. Convictions involving cocaine or heroin are the next most common. In fourth place were fentanyl convictions, with fentanyl analogues, which can be much more potent, listed separately now in 10th place.

Marijuana was in fifth place with 2,266 convictions – more than 13 times more frequent than convictions involving oxycontin which accounted for just 169 convictions. But, as noted above, marijuana as well as other controlled substance convictions were rarely for simple possession.

Figure 3. Top 10 Controlled Substances in Federal Drug Convictions, October 2020 - March 2023
Table 1. Type of Controlled Substance in Federal Drug Convictions, October 2020 - March 2023
Controlled Substance Convictions Percent
Total* 43,253 100.0%
Methamphetamine 19,086 46.0%
Cocaine 7,529 18.2%
Heroin 5,054 12.2%
Fentanyl 4,286 10.3%
Marijuana 2,266 5.5%
Crack Cocaine 1,406 3.4%
Other - Opioids 301 0.7%
Prescription Drug - Opioid 255 0.6%
Oxycontin 169 0.4%
Analogue - Fentanyl 135 0.3%
Steroids 122 0.3%
Amphetamines 117 0.3%
Ecstasy 115 0.3%
Meth-Lab 111 0.3%
Other - Non-Opioid 106 0.3%
Prescription Drug - Non-Opioid 66 0.2%
Prescription Drugs 54 0.1%
LSD 51 0.1%
Other 44 0.1%
Analogue - Non-Fentanyl 40 0.1%
Ketamine 35 0.1%
PCP 34 0.1%
Hallucinogens (other than PCP and LSD) 31 0.1%
Methaqualone 20 0.0%
Hashish 17 0.0%
Analogue 10 0.0%
Opium 6 0.0%
Precursor - Opioid 5 0.0%
Barbiturates 3 0.0%
Precursor 1 0.0%
Total* 43,253 100.0%
* Total includes 1,778 where control substance not recorded.

There has also been a sharp shift in the drugs being targeted. Federal convictions involving fentanyl were rare five years ago. During FY 2017 there were just 63 convictions recorded. During the first half of FY 2023 there have already been more than 1,200. Meth convictions are up by 60 percent, while convictions for marijuana offenses are sharply down. During FY 2017 there were over 3,500 convictions involving marijuana. During the first half of this year there were around 350 or one-tenth that level.

Investigative Agencies Referring Drug Offenses

Since its establishment, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) accounts by far for the largest number of federal criminal referrals resulting in drug convictions. During FY 2023, referrals on which it was the lead investigative agency accounted for 44 percent of all federal drug convictions. As shown in Figure 4, at one time the DEA played an even more dominant role. It is largely the declines in drug prosecutions resulting from its referrals that has led to the general declines in federal drug prosecutions, as well as the recent increases.

However, as shown in Figure 4, other law enforcement agencies are also active in investigating drug crimes. These include the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in the Justice Department, as well as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the Department of Homeland Security. Referrals from state and local agencies also play a significant role. All together nine out of every ten referrals resulting in federal drug convictions this year were from these five sources.

While prior to the establishment of DHS, the FBI accounted for the second largest number of federal drug convictions resulting from its referrals, it was initially surpassed for a period by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). But now these two agencies contribute equivalent numbers.

Figure 4. Federal Drug Convictions by Lead Investigative Agency, FY 2008 - FY 2023 (through March)

Most Active Federal Districts for Drug Convictions

The Southern District of California (San Diego) has been the most active federal district for over a decade. It had the highest number of federal drug convictions, and also ranked first relative to the size of its population. ICE investigations have been responsible for most of this activity.

The U.S. Attorney Office in North Dakota ranks second in having the most drug convictions relative to the size of its population. It was also ranked second last year, as well as five years ago.

The Southern District of West Virginia (Charleston) has the third highest number of federal drug convictions relative to its population size. It surpassed the Northern District of West Virginia (Wheeling) so far in FY 2023.

Alaska and the Western District of Tennessee (Memphis) had the fourth and fifth highest number of drug convictions respectively, relative to their population sizes.

Table 2 lists the other districts in the top ten in terms of their per capita federal drug convictions. It is notable that most of these are largely rural, without major metropolitan centers.

Table 2. Top 10 districts (per one million people)
Judicial District Percapita Count Rank 1yr ago 5yrs ago 10yrs ago 20yrs ago
Cal, S 528 915 1 1 1 1 3
N Dakota 317 123 2 2 2 7 45
W Virg, S 254 109 3 17 8 10 13
Alaska 171 60 4 25 21 22 69
Tenn, W 160 125 5 26 25 8 34
W Virg, N 158 73 6 4 5 4 7
Montana 145 80 7 15 12 13 18
Tenn, E 141 191 8 9 16 6 27
S Dakota 132 58 9 3 17 14 29
Texas, W 127 488 10 10 4 5 1

Digging Deeper

TRAC offers a number of free bulletins tracking criminal prosecutions and convictions overall, and by federal agency including DEA, FBI, ATF, Immigration and Customs, IRS and the Social Security Administration. All have been updated through March of 2023.

Additional free monthly bulletins are available by major federal program categories. Including narcotics/drugs, international as well as domestic terrorism, official corruptions, civil rights, weapons, environment, white-collar crime, and immigration.

[1]^ See Chart 8 tracking criminal cases involving controlled substances. Controlled substances cases filed by U.S. attorneys show a short term spurt until FY 1973 (although this may be a reporting artifact) and then general declining numbers until FY 1983 when they began to climb.
[3]^ For how federal criminal enforcement dropped see: “ How Is Covid-19 Impacting Criminal Enforcement?” (April 2020), “ Non-Immigration Prosecutions Rebound” (September 2020).
[4]^ Comparable statistics for the number of convictions for drug violations by local and state jurisdictions for this same period do not appear to be available. Reported numbers for past periods have many limitations. The 2019 uniform crime reports of the FBI reports that “[n]ationwide, law enforcement made an estimated 10,085,207 arrests in 2019... The highest number of arrests were for drug abuse violations (estimated at 1,558,862 arrests).” The number in 2007 was 1.8 million arrests for “ drug abuse violations.” Most state and local drug arrests are for drug possession, rather than sale or manufacturing. Two-thirds were for possession of marijuana or other dangerous nonnarcotic drugs. The sale or manufacture of heroin or cocaine and their derivatives was just 4.2 percent according to these statistics compiled by the FBI in its Uniform Crime Reports.
TRAC is a nonpartisan, nonprofit data research center affiliated with the Newhouse School of Public Communications and the Whitman School of Management, both at Syracuse University. For more information, to subscribe, or to donate, contact trac@syr.edu or call 315-443-3563.