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A Tradition of Excellence: A History of the DEA


The long, proud, and honorable tradition of federal drug law enforcement began in 1915 with the Bureau of Internal Revenue. In the following decades, several federal agencies had drug law enforcement responsibilities. By the 1960s, the two agencies charged with drug law enforcement were the Bureau of Drug Abuse Control (BDAC) and the federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN). It was during this period that America underwent a significant change. The introduction of drugs into American culture and the efforts to “normalize” drug use started to take a terrible toll on the nation. Nevertheless, American children could still walk to school in relative safety, worrying only about report cards or the neighborhood bully. Today however, as children approach their schools, they see barbed wire, metal detectors, and signs warning drug dealers that school property is a “drug free zone.” In too many communities, drug dealers and gunfire force decent, law-abiding citizens to seek refuge behind locked doors.

In 1960, only four million Americans had ever tried drugs. Currently, that number has risen to over 74 million. Behind these statistics are the stories of countless families, communities, and individuals adversely affected by drug abuse and drug trafficking.

Prior to the 1960s, Americans did not see drug use as acceptable behavior, nor did they believe that drug use was an inevitable fact of life. Indeed, tolerance of drug use resulted in terrible increases in crime between the 1960s and the early 1990s, and the landscape of America has been altered forever.

By the early 1970s, drug use had not yet reached its all-time peak, but the problem was sufficiently serious to warrant a serious response. Consequently, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was created in 1973 to deal with America’s growing drug problem.

At that time, the well-organized international drug trafficking syndicates headquartered in Colombia and Mexico had not yet assumed their place on the world stage as the preeminent drug suppliers. All of the heroin and cocaine, and most of the marijuana that entered the United States was being trafficked by lesser international drug dealers who had targeted cities and towns within the nation. Major law enforcement investigations, such as the French Connection made by agents in the DEA’s predecessor agency, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD), graphically illustrated the complexity and scope of America’s heroin problem.

In the years prior to 1973, several important developments took place which would ultimately have a significant impact on the DEA and federal drug control efforts for years to come. By the time that the DEA was created by Executive Order in July 1973 to establish a single unified command, America was beginning to see signs of the drug and crime epidemic that lay ahead. In order to appreciate how the DEA has evolved into the important law enforcement institution it is today, it must be understood that many of its programs have roots in predecessor agencies.

To learn more, select the period of history that you are interested in reading more about from the menu at left.

This is the first in a series of virtual exhibits for the DEA Museum and Visitors Center website. This exhibit was developed in conjunction with the DEA Office of Information Services and the publication of A Tradition of Excellence, The History of the DEA from 1973 to 1998.

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