Drug Prosecutions Drop To Historic Lows Under Trump

Despite widespread concern about an epidemic of opioid abuse, and announcements by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and others of stepped of efforts by his department and the Trump administration to address it, federal criminal prosecutions for drug offenses have dropped to historic lows.

"This epidemic of opioid abuse is a crisis," Sessions said in remarks at an opioid summit in May. "It's ravaging our communities, bringing crime and violence to our streets and destroying the lives of so many Americans." While acknowledging prevention is ultimately the key, Sessions said that "criminal enforcement is crucial[1]."

The latest data from the Justice Department, current through June 2017, show that fewer drug offenders were federally prosecuted over the past 12 months than at any time during the last quarter century. According to the case-by-case records analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, during the first five months of the Trump administration (February - June 2017), there were only 8,814 drug offenders federally prosecuted. This represents a drop of 9.0 percent as compared with the 9,687 federal criminal cases prosecuted during February - June 2016.

Table 1. Criminal Narotics/Drugs
Federal Prosecutions
Number latest month 1,578
Percent change from previous month -16.1
Number February - June 2017 8,814
Percent change from 1 year ago -9.0
Percent change from 5 years ago
(Including Magistrate Court)
Percent change from 5 years ago
(Excluding Magistrate Court)

During the month of June 2017, only 1,578 new prosecutions for drug crimes were brought - down 16.1 percent from the number in May. And prosecutions over the past year are even lower than they were five years ago. Overall, the data show that drug prosecutions in U.S. district courts are down 27.6 percent from levels reported in 2012. See Table 1.

The decrease from the levels five years ago in narcotics/drugs prosecutions for these matters is shown more clearly in Figure 1. The vertical bars in Figure 1 represent the number of narcotics/drugs prosecutions of this type recorded on a month-to-month basis. Where a prosecution was initially filed in U.S. Magistrate Court and then transferred to the U.S. District Court, the magistrate filing date was used since this provides an earlier indicator of actual trends. The superimposed line on the bars plots the six- month moving average so that natural fluctuations are smoothed out. The five-year rates of change in Table 1 are based upon this six-month moving average.

Figure 1. Monthly Trends in Narcotics/Drugs Prosecutions

The comparisons of the number of defendants charged with narcotics/drugs-related offenses are based on case-by-case information obtained by TRAC under the Freedom of Information Act from the Executive Office for United States Attorneys.

Lead Investigative Agencies for Drug Crimes

So far during the first nine months of FY 2017, about 1 in 5 cases (21.8%) were the result of organized crime task force efforts. An additional three out of four (75.8%) fell under drug trafficking programs, while simple drug possession was the nature of the offense in the remaining 2.5 percent of cases.

The lead investigative agency for the largest number of prosecutions so far during FY 2017 was the Drug Enforcement Administration. It was the lead investigative agency in nearly four out every ten (38.9%) federal criminal prosecutions filed.

Additional agencies with substantial numbers of narcotics/drugs referrals that were prosecuted in FY 2017 were: Immigration and Customs Enforcement (19.3%), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (13.3%), Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (6.0%), and Customs and Border Protection (5.9%). Referrals from state and local law enforcement agencies accounted for another 4.5 percent.

Figure 2: Specific types of prosecutions

Figure 3: Prosecutions by Investigative Agency

Top Ranked Lead Charge

Table 2 shows the top lead charges recorded in the prosecutions of narcotics/drugs matters filed in federal district courts during the first nine months of FY 2017.

Lead Charge Count Rank 1 yr ago 5 yrs ago 10 yrs ago 20 yrs ago
21 USC 841 - Drug Abuse Prevention & Control-Prohibited acts A 7,367 1 1 1 1 1
21 USC 846 - Attempt and conspiracy 5,595 2 2 2 2 2
21 USC 952 - Importation of controlled substances 1,106 3 3 3 3 3
21 USC 844 - Penalty for simple possession 323 4 4 4 4 5
46 USC 70503 - Possession control substance on vessel subject to jurisdiction of US 317 5 5 8 10 -
18 USC 922 - Firearms; Unlawful acts 169 6 6 6 8 7
46 USC 70506 - Penalties 129 7 8 10 24 -
21 USC 963 - Attempt and conspiracy 122 8 7 5 5 4
18 USC 1956 - Laundering of monetary instruments 71 9 13 7 9 6
21 USC 843 - Drug Abuse Prevention & Control-Prohibited acts C 60 10 9 11 6 10

Table 2: Top charges filed

  • "Drug Abuse Prevention & Control-Prohibited acts A" (Title 21 U.S.C Section 841) was the most frequent recorded lead charge. Title 21 U.S.C Section 841 has been consistently the most frequently invoked charge for many years.

  • Ranked second in frequency was the lead charge "Attempt and conspiracy" under Title 21 U.S.C Section 846. This statute is usually the second most frequently invoked lead charge in criminal prosecutions for twenty years.

  • Ranked third was "Importation of controlled substances" under Title 21 U.S.C Section 952. Typically Title 21 U.S.C Section 952 has been the third most frequently cited lead charge for several decades.

Among the top ten lead charges, the one showing the sharpest projected decline in prosecutions compared to one year ago-down 16 percent-was "Attempt and conspiracy " (Title 21 U.S.C Section 963). Its frequency of use has fallen by 35 percent when compared with five years ago.

Top Ranked Judicial Districts

During FY 2016 the Justice Department said the government obtained 68.9 narcotics/drugs prosecutions for every one million people in the United States. If pace during the first nine months of FY 2017 continues at the same rate, narcotics/drugs prosecutions for one million people in the United States this year will be 65.3 . Understandably, there is great variation in the per capita number of narcotics/drugs prosecutions in each of the nation's ninety-four federal judicial districts.

Judicial District Percapita Count Rank 1yr ago 5yrs ago 10yrs ago 20yrs ago
Cal, S 454 1,184 1 3 1 2 1
Arizona 315 1,615 2 1 2 10 8
N Mexico 288 451 3 2 3 3 5
Texas, W 243 1,273 4 5 4 1 4
Vermont 217 102 5 6 18 31 40
W Virg, N 188 131 6 20 5 4 23
Ala, S 157 99 7 14 11 6 3
W Virg, S 153 105 8 7 12 14 15
Wyoming 136 60 9 8 64 5 33
S Dakota 136 86 10 25 15 11 17

Table 3: Top 10 districts (per one million people)

  • The Southern District of California (San Diego)—with 453.68 prosecutions as compared with 65.3 prosecutions per one million people in the United States—was the most active through June 2017. The Southern District of California (San Diego) was ranked 3rd a year ago, while it was ranked 1st five years ago. The district's position ten years ago was 2nd and 1st twenty years ago.

  • The District of Arizona ranked 2nd. The District of Arizona was ranked 1st a year ago, while it was ranked 2nd five years ago. The district's position ten years ago was 10th and 8th twenty years ago.

  • The District of New Mexico now ranks 3rd. The District of New Mexico was ranked 2nd a year ago, while it was ranked 3rd five years ago. The district's position ten years ago was 3rd and 5th twenty years ago.

Compared to 10 years ago, South Dakota, Southern District of West Virginia (Charleston) and Vermont now ranked in the top 10 did not appear in the top ten.

The federal judicial district which showed the greatest projected growth in the rate of narcotics/drugs prosecutions compared to one year ago—94.1 percent—was Northern District of West Virginia (Wheeling). Compared to five years ago, the district with the largest projected growth—242 percent—was Wyoming .

In the last year, the judicial District Court recording the largest projected drop in the rate of narcotics/drugs prosecutions—30.0 percent—was New Mexico. 


[1] http://dailycaller.com/2017/05/11/sessions-addresses-drug-scourge-bringing-violence-to-our-streets-at-opioid-summit/

TRAC offers free monthly reports on program categories such as white collar crime, immigration, drugs, weapons and terrorism and on selected government agencies such as the IRS, FBI, ATF and DHS. For the latest information on prosecutions and convictions, go to http://trac.syr.edu/tracreports/bulletins/. In addition, subscribers to the TRACFed data service can generate custom reports for a specific agency, judicial district, program category, lead charge or judge via the TRAC Data Interpreter.