Prevention Profiles: Take Five - Sean Fearns (Drug Enforcement Administration)


Sean Fearns

Audio file

Sean Fearns, the Chief of DEA's Community Outreach and Prevention Support Section, is this month's guest. During the episode, Fearns talks prevention, his agency's efforts to reach out to college students, challenges with getting law enforcement and prevention professionals to work together, and much more.

Rich Lucey:  Hi.

This is Rich Lucey in the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Community Outreach and Prevention Support Section and welcome to the next episode of Prevention Profiles: Take Five.

I’m excited about our next guest for this episode; it’s my boss, which we don’t often get a chance to interview our boss so formally in these types of situations, so I’m kind of excited to do that.

Sean Fearns is our guest today and Sean joined DEA in 1998, as part of the team in the Office of Public Affairs that developed and opened the DEA Museum in 1999.

In 2015, Sean was promoted to Chief of DEA’s Community Outreach and Prevention Support Section.

And in this capacity, he is responsible for guiding a diverse and creative staff.

Yes, that would involve me, to develop and implement strategic national partnerships with other organizations that help educate the public on current drug threats facing the country, to help communicate the Administration’s key drug misuse prevention messages and to reduce the demand for those drugs, including implementing DEA’s 360 Strategy.

And so with that, Sean, welcome to the podcast.

Sean Fearns: It is a pleasure to be here, Rich.

Thank you and you should not be at all nervous that I’m taking notes and that this will be in your evaluation at the end of the year.

Lucey: Exactly.

So, we're gonna get a "three-for" with this interview. [laughter]

So for, for the listeners of our podcast and especially if this is your podcast listening, these interviews are based around five foundational questions.

And so I’m going to jump right into our first one.

And I often actually get this question when I’m out presenting or if I’m helping to staff our exhibit at national conferences.

So we know DEA’s primary mission is to enforce the nation’s federal drug laws.

But why is DEA involved in drug abuse prevention, which seems like a separate lane from enforcement.

Fearns: Yeah, and you know what?

That’s a shame, that that’s the case.

I agree with you entirely, Rich.

If I had a dollar for every time that someone said, you know, what the heck is DEA doing, working prevention?

I’d certainly be a wealthy man.

Yes, DEA is an enforcement organization, but since the mid-1980s and yes, it’s been that long, we have had a place or a role in the prevention world.

And it really boils down to … and I don’t want to get out ahead of this particular question by going into the weeds on Red Ribbon.

But it goes back to a really unfortunate event that happened in 1985, where a DEA Special Agent named Enrique Camarena, was kidnapped, tortured and murdered in Guadalajara, Mexico, for having  been doing investigations against Mexico-based cartels.

He was on his way to lunch with his wife at the Consulate when it happened.

And it was a huge wakeup call to all of those at DEA, that the drug situation in the ‘80s had really escalated to that point and that what occurred to the head of DEA at the time, Jack Lawn, our Administrator.

Hey, you know what?

Law enforcement alone is not going to get us out of this drug mess and that if there’s any role that DEA can play in pushing the importance of the support for and the attention to prevention, then DEA should do that.

And so they stood up.

Back then it was known as our Demand Reduction Section, because the effort was focused on reducing the demand for drugs, while the rest of DEA worked on reducing the supply.

But it really is, if you step back and look at the holistic approach to drug policy, enforcement is only one piece of a broader puzzle.

And any effort that we can bring to support prevention and facilitating awareness of and support for prevention in the communities were our agents, our diversion investigators, our intelligence analysts and our friends and chemists work, then we’re really helping to move that needle, I think.

Lucey: So you mentioned former Administrator Lawn and for those of us who have been in the prevention field for 25 plus years, like myself and many of our listeners who have been in the field for quite some time, may not currently have this issue, I’ll move onto our second question, where we talk about law enforcement and prevention.

And historically, it’s sometimes been a challenge to get law enforcement personnel and prevention practitioners to work together, that they have not necessarily seen eye-to-eye on how to deal with America’s drug problem.

Why do think that is and do you think the relationship is better?

Fearns: So I think that there have been issues with getting the different siloes, if you will, of law enforcement, prevention, treatment and recovery to more work more seamlessly together.

I certainly think the opioid crisis has helped bring us together as never before.

I think there’s also been, over the years, an increasing understanding of each other’s needs and positions as part of this big machine of trying to go after the drug issue in America.

I will offer the opinion that I think that maybe over … and I’ve been with DEA now for 20 years … that I think in the time I’ve been here, I think there’s been more of a challenge with law enforcement working with treatment and recovery.

I think that some issues continue with law enforcement and prevention, but I think we are closer than perhaps we have been.

I think it boils down to language.

I think that, you know, Special Agents and law enforcement writ large at the federal, state and local level, speak a certain language and use terms and I think prevention practitioners and folks that do prevention science use terms and speak a certain language.

And while I think best intentions are there, I think sometimes it really just boils down to, you know, you’ve got two very well-intentioned camps that are speaking essentially what they think is the same thing, but using different words and perhaps muddying the water a bit.

But at the end of the day, I think you would find that, at least at DEA, I can’t speak for all of law enforcement, but at DEA, there is a very strong opinion and support for the value and need for doing prevention and that anything that we can do to support that, we will.

And that as we work together with prevention, treatment, recovery, all of public health, I think you see those, those camps breaking down through those walls that maybe had prevented them from being able to communicate with each other effectively in the past.

Lucey:  And it’s interesting you talk about the siloes and different terminology that are used in the various disciplines and fields.

And while treatment, prevention, law enforcement, education, healthcare, all may have different primary missions, it all comes down to a common goal, which is preventing, you know, drug use among youth and young adults, as a primary audience and that’s what you can come behind and get, to work together on.

Fearns:  You know, just as a follow-up, let me just say this.

That I think that if we can work on law enforcement, using the right language to describe what they’re doing, that that will help.

I think at the end of the day, a lot of folks on the law enforcement side simply say, you know, forgive us for being crude in what we’re trying to do, but the end of the day, we get that if we can prevent kids from misusing and abusing in the first place, that we save time, money and energy down the road and that universal and indicated prevention strategies tactics are absolutely imperative.

And, and if there’s a role that law enforcement can play to galvanize a community and to use our bully pulpit, to speak truth and say, folks, at the end of the day, we get a bigger bang for our buck when we spend money on preventing these problems in the first place, than trying to treat them or support them in long-term, long-term successful recovery and also deal with all the myriad costs associated with the criminal justice system.

Lucey:  Great.

So I want to pivot, as I move onto our third question, from talking generally about prevention, as it relates to the prevention field in law enforcement and talk a little bit more  specifically about the primary audience around campusdrug, which I’m really excited about.

This podcast episode will air in conjunction with what will essentially mark the one-year anniversary of the launch of

Fearns:  Happy birthday.

Lucey: Yeah.

So it’s been really exciting to have this tool and this resource available to so many professionals who are working to prevent drug use among college students.

So over the course of the past year plus, DEA has really enhanced its outreach and prevention support to colleges and universities.

Did DEA have a rationale for engaging with these schools or a real plan for that?

Fearns: Yeah, well, I don’t know if I’d say we had an organized plan, but this dates back a couple of years now to conversations that go all the way up to the Administrator of DEA.

And it really boils down to this.

We have, DEA has had a presence on college campuses, but that presence has been almost exclusively either there to attend career fairs and encourage college students to consider going to work for DEA when they graduate.

Or to conduct enforcement actions, which is our bread and butter.

And sadly, there have been a need for some law enforcement actions on some campuses around the country over the last decades.

That said, DEA has focused efforts in its prevention work or its prevention support work, I should say, with different sectors.

There’s since day one been an effort to go after elementary and middle school kids.

There’s been an effort to engage parents and give parents and caregivers information to help talk to their kids.

There’s been an effort to go and address teachers and bring information that teachers can use to have these conversations in the classroom.

So the feeling was that, if we’re missing that college and university audience, that why don’t we step into that space, that perhaps there’s not as much effort to support higher ed, as there had been in the past and could we make up the difference.

And so what that initial thought started was a planning process to say, where are there some gaps?

What can DEA do to help move the ball down the field?

If it’s not providing direct prevention education to college and university students, maybe it’s being an incubator and a sharer of material from across the federal government and other outside resources, to those people who are doing prevention on college campuses.

Could we help support their efforts.

Lucey: Well, and so since we’ve launched the website over the past year, we’ve had some direct presentations about the website and some workshops and presentations at national conferences about it and have, you know, admittedly and are happily really received some very, very positive feedback about what essentially was a gap that existed.

And they were very happy that we were there to help fill that gap, because there’s a real need to focus on college students, because we know that their rates of drug use, whether it’s marijuana, prescription drugs and others, certainly would warrant our looking at that population.

Fearns: At the end of the day, I don’t ever want DEA to be accused of reinventing the wheel or duplicating efforts on any of our work out in the community, to support good drug prevention education.

And so I think what, what this office has done in the last couple of years is do a lot of listening and say, you know, what, what are the needs and what are the gaps and how can we, with our limited resources, help move the field forward by, you know, filling some of those gaps.

And we’re going to continue to look for ways and opportunities to think outside the box and be creative and move forward in this space.

It’s not, you know, just a blip to us.

Lucey: And I’m glad you brought that up about the, the lot of listening that we did, because good prevention science will tell you that, you know, local solutions are driven by the community.

And we don’t want to come in and dictate what should be done and it really took a lot of listening to the field about what was needed.

And I know that they were really appreciative of the Agency for that.

So I’ll move onto the next two questions.

It’s really focused in on a couple of very specific efforts that DEA is involved in.

And so the first one is, one of DEA’s more high profile efforts is National Prescription Drug Take-back Day.

And in fact, this past April, almost 475 tons of unwanted and expired prescription medicine was collected at more than 5800 sites around the country.

So how can college campuses get involved in the next Take-back Day, which will be this October?

Fearns: Yes.

So that’s … first of all, anyone who’s listening to this podcast, before this date in October, should mark their calendars now.

Save the date, please.

That is a call to action that I am, I’m carrying forward today.

Saturday, October 27, 2018.

For many years now, DEA has been supporting these twice-yearly prescription Drug Take-back Days.

And every Take-back Day, we bring in more and more unused or expired medications than we did the previous go-around.

And so I suspect that October of 2018 will be even more of a record than April of 2018 was.

One of the growth sectors, if you will, for that effort, is our outreach to colleges and universities.

And I want to commend, intentionally and particularly, the folks at the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, IACLEA, and at NASPA, because both organizations have helped us in the last couple of years, get the word out to colleges and universities in two ways.

One, is if a college and university has sworn campus law enforcement, they have the ability, through DEA’s regulations, to host Prescription Drug Take-back boxes on their campus.

Not just, frankly, on those two days in April and October, but every day of the year; that’s one.

And two, the rest of the college and university’s administration can support the Take-back effort by publicizing it.

Because quite frankly, even if a campus doesn’t have sworn law enforcement that are willing and able to support a Take-back box in the quad or down at the food hall, there’s probably a Take-back location in town, nearby.

And if the college or university administration could make the effort to raise the awareness to the undergrads and the grads, the students, to say hey, if you’ve got unwanted or expired medication, get rid of it.

And the reason the DEA is so adamant about the Take-back program is the data, is the science that shows from SAMPSA, from HHS, that the majority of misused and abused medications in this country come not from illicit websites or you know, overseas markets, but from the home medicine cabinet, which frankly, could be the medicine cabinet in the residence hall, as much as it could be at home.

And so there are opportunities there to, to eliminate that problem, by turning in those medications at those Take-back events.

It’s anonymous, it’s free.

No questions asked.

No, we do not write down the names of the people off the medicine bottle and then go hunt them down.

And really, we’re just trying to get these massive quantities of opioids off the market.

So those are two quick and easy things, you know, that can be done and that we’re asking colleges to step up to, is to ask your law enforcement on campus to support Take-back locations on campus and two, to spread the word amongst the students to take part in Take-back.

Lucey: Absolutely.

And for our listeners, as we closer to the next Take-back Day, which Sean has mentioned is October 27, if you visit the website,, we will be promoting Take-back Day with some features on the website.

And also, it will be included on the Events Calendar, which is also posted as a distinct section on the website, so you can learn more information there about it.
Fearns:  And just a quick teaser, Rich.

One of the things that DEA is now thinking about, you know, moving beyond just those twice-yearly Take-backs, is trying to find ways to make everyday Take-back Day.

And so for those who are listening that are involved in public health on college and university campuses, strategies that help support the ability of a student or a member of staff to dispose of their unused or expired medications, right when they are finished taking them, we are all in favor of.

And a number of pharmacies have started to put Take-back boxes year-round, a number of doctors’ offices do it.

I know that there’s additional cost to that and we get it, but quite frankly, two days a year isn’t enough.

And we certainly don’t want people to automatically just flush it down the toilet, because that has environmental implications that, you know, nobody wants to get into.

So you know, thinking about ways to make the disposal of prescription drugs as second nature as getting in a car and buckling the seatbelt; that’s what we want.

We want awareness and attitude and behavior change across the entire country.

Lucey:  One last piece on this issue of disposal for the listeners.

If you go onto the website and go to the Publications section, you will see a very nice one-pager that DEA developed over the last year on how to properly dispose of your medicines.

And so you certainly can download that and the website will allow the feature of having you email that, put it on your Facebook page, Tweet it out, however you want to get it out over your social media platform.

So I would encourage you to go look up that flyer.

So I move onto our fifth question and it also deals with another one of our really high-profile efforts and that is Red Ribbon Week, which you did talk about a little bit earlier, which really started more than three decades ago.

It was the result of the horrific events involving Special Agent Camarena.

So what makes Red Ribbon Week special and more specifically, how can colleges and universities get involved?

Fearns: Obviously, DEA has its heart in the Red Ribbon program, because of its beginnings with Special Agent Enrique Camarena.

But I think what genuinely makes it important and unique is that it was a grassroots effort.

It was not started by DEA.

It was actually started by some of Kiki Camarena’s fellow high school students in the high school that Kiki went to, in Calexico, California.

They started these Camarena Clubs, where they had fellow students sign antidrug pledges.

And it grew organically, from the grassroots, from that to a national effort, that folks like the National Family Partnership were instrumental in helping to develop.

And then obviously, DEA lent its support, both at the local level and then as it became a national movement, at the national level.

So I think that’s, that is an important distinction, because it’s not a federal program that’s being forced upon communities or trying to be rolled out nationwide, with a certain number of deliverables and you must do this and you must report out this.

It is, it is a local initiative, made unique in a local community.

What is perhaps new about Red Ribbon is our effort to try and promote it more on colleges and university campuses, because historically it has been seen as an elementary, middle and high school level program, predominantly out west of the Mississippi.

And so, you know, ways that colleges and universities can get involved are almost limitless.

And I know that every fall, campus … well, not every fall.

For the last fall since was launched, there are Red Ribbon resources that are made available on the website for prevention folks on college and university campuses to use.

And so that’s what I would encourage.

I would encourage those who are responsible for putting together thematic prevention programs, consider the opportunity in October, because Red Ribbon Week never changes.

It’s always October 23 through October 31, every year, regardless of what days of the week it falls on.

And so there are opportunities for the campus to support and sponsor an education program, perhaps they reach out to a local DEA office and ask an agent to come and talk to a group about what it meant to have Enrique Camarena involved in drug law enforcement and what his loss meant to this organization.

And, and not to simply leave it at there, but to also, you know, bring in, you know, evidence-based prevention programs that then, you know, help to raise awareness and to build the ability for folks to make drug-free decisions.

But this, this office has provided support to campuses in the form of some video challenge and we run PSAs that are available for campuses to, to steal and use, as much as possible.

At the end of the day, we will consider it a success if more college students are aware of Red Ribbon and are aware of the importance of, of living drug-free, because of all the different costs of drugs to society, not the least of which is all the costs associated with criminal justice and the loss of life.

Not just by those who have been lost to addiction and overdose, but those who have been lost on the law enforcement side, who are trying to keep these nasty products from getting onto college and university campuses in the first place.

Lucey:  So for our listeners, I’m glad that Sean mentioned the PSA contest, as we, with our partners at the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, get ready to administer our third annual, now we’re up to three years, of a Red Ribbon Week campus video PSA contest.

You can find all the information about that on

And so be on the lookout later in the summer and then into the fall for the full launch of that contest.

And we would encourage you to consider applying for that.

So Sean, as I wrap up the interview, I’d like to give you an opportunity to just give some final words and any kind of encouragement to our listeners in the work that they do.
Fearns: Well, well, that’s a leading comment, because I didn’t know you going to ask me to do that, but that’s exactly what I wanted to do, which is to say to each and every one of you listening, that the work that you do, to support drug prevention education on college and university campuses is so incredibly critical.

We know that at DEA.

We applaud and commend and support you.

We ask that you use and abuse us in the Field Offices around the country, where we are.

We have 226 offices around the country.

We are there to help you.

And just know that we’re gunning for you to be as successful as possible, to do everything, to, to help promote drug-free living amongst the college students and on campus.

And that anyone who says that it’s too late for college students, that we should be focusing on the elementary level or the middle school level, I call BS and I say no, we must continue to reinforce all the way through to adulthood, that the very best days for this country are days when fewer people are misusing and abusing drugs, not when more people are misusing and abusing drugs.

So thank you very much for all that you do, every day across the country, and we stand with you and behind you, to assist you.

Lucey: Thanks, Sean.

And this has really been, it has been fun to do this interview, because it gives me and more importantly, the listeners to learn a little bit about DEA, its history and what its plans are going forward for around this issue of preventing drug abuse among college students.

And so, to all the listeners, thank you for tuning in and we do hope you enjoy these episodes of Prevention Profiles Take Five.

And with that, I say take care and have a great day.