Prevention Profiles: Take Five - Uttam Dhillon (Acting Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration)


Uttam Dhillon

Audio file

Uttam Dhillon, Acting Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, is our guest for this podcast episode. During his interview with Rich Lucey, Mr. Dhillon discusses DEA's role in drug abuse prevention, the relationship between prevention professionals and law enforcement, National Prescription Drug Take Back Day, and much more.

Rich Lucey: Hi everyone. This is Rich Lucey with the Drug Enforcement Administration in our Community Outreach and Prevention Support Section.
I welcome you to this episode of our podcast series “Prevention Profiles: Take Five.”
This is an exciting episode for me personally. Today we have a very special guest with us. It is DEA’s Acting Administrator Uttam Dhillon. So I’m really excited to welcome Mr. Dhillon to the podcast, and get his thoughts on some of the various issues you’re dealing with on college campuses and some of the things that we’re working on at DEA to help support your efforts.
Before we introduce, or welcome, Mr. Dhillon formally to the podcast, let me tell you a little bit about him.

Uttam Dhillon was appointed Acting Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration on July 2, 2018, by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. In 2006, Mr. Dhillon was confirmed by the United States Senate as the first Director of the Office of Counternarcotics Enforcement at the Department of Homeland Security. In that role, he worked closely with other federal agencies to coordinate the federal government's anti-drug efforts. Prior to DHS, Mr. Dhillon served as an Associate Deputy Attorney General in the United States Department of Justice where he led the development of the Department's anti-gang efforts as chair of the Attorney General's Anti-Gang Coordination Committee. Earlier in his career, Mr. Dhillon served as an Assistant United States Attorney in the Central District of California for over six years. In that role, he directed complex investigations of major narcotics trafficking organizations and gangs. Mr. Dhillon successfully prosecuted cases involving narcotics trafficking, money laundering, alien smuggling, and gun possession crimes.

With that, Mr. Dhillon, welcome to the podcast.

DEA Acting Administrator Uttam Dhillon: Well thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here.

Lucey: Absolutely. So, as is typical with all of our podcasts, we’re basing the interview around five questions that we’ve prepared for you. So, we’ll dive right into the first one:

DEA’s primary mission is to enforce the nation’s federal drug laws. Why is DEA involved in drug abuse prevention, which seems like a separate lane from enforcement?

Dhillon: There is no doubt that DEA’s primary mission and responsibility as a law enforcement agency is to enforce the nation's federal drug laws. However, law enforcement alone isn’t going to get the nation out of the drug crisis we find ourselves in. That is why prevention is so important and must be part of our comprehensive approach. DEA recognizes that not only reducing the supply of drugs is essential to a safe and drug-free country, but also reducing the demand for illicit drugs is a vital component to effectively reduce drug use in our nation. That is why DEA created what is now our Community Outreach and Prevention Support Section as an essential complement to our primary law enforcement mission more than three decades ago.

Lucey: Historically, it is sometimes a challenge for law enforcement personnel and prevention practitioners to work together—they have not necessarily seen eye-to-eye on how to deal with America’s drug problem. Why is that and do you think the relationship is better?

Dhillon: I think there might have been a time when it seemed like prevention and law enforcement were at odds with each other. Let’s face it – prevention’s primary mission is prevention, and law enforcement’s primary mission is law enforcement. But prevention and law enforcement have a shared goal, which is helping to create and maintain safer and healthier individuals, families, and communities.

While it seems like prevention and enforcement are in separate lanes, I definitely believe the relationship is better because they are working collaboratively on this shared goal. And we took our cue on this from our partners in the prevention field. 

Collaboration has long been recognized as a key element of successful drug abuse prevention, mainly because the issue is so complex that no one agency or organization can do it on their own. Many of DEA’s special agents see firsthand the harmful impact that drugs are having on our nation’s communities. Being a law enforcement agency provides us an opportunity to offer a unique perspective to drug abuse prevention efforts.

Lucey: Over the course of the past few years, DEA enhanced its outreach and prevention support to colleges and universities. What does DEA hope to achieve from this support?

Dhillon: The first thing we hope to achieve is to change their perception of DEA’s presence on the campus. Historically, DEA has been on college campuses for recruitment fairs or enforcement actions. But now we want the administrators, faculty members, staff, and students to recognize that DEA has another role. We are there to help support colleges and universities in their efforts to create a safe and healthy learning environment. 

National survey data tell us that the 18-25 age group have some of the highest rates of drug use, and of course college students fit squarely in that group. 

According to the Monitoring the Future Study, college students’ use of marijuana is at its highest levels seen in the past three decades. Nearly one in five full-time college students reported using marijuana at least once in the past month.

According to the American College Health Association, more than 9% of college students reported using one or more types of prescription drugs (including antidepressants, pain killers, sedatives, and stimulants) that were not prescribed to them within the last 12 months. 

DEA has developed a new portfolio of prevention-related resources for institutions of higher education.

Two years ago DEA created, our award-winning website for professionals working to prevent drug abuse among college students.

We have staff lending their expertise in prevention science, policy, and programming at national and statewide conferences.

Later this year we will publish a strategic planning guide to preventing drug abuse among college students.

These products get created with input from colleges and universities on the types of resources they need most to help support their prevention efforts.

Lucey: One of DEA’s high-profile efforts is National Prescription Drug Take Back Day. In fact, this past October more than 457 tons of unwanted, unneeded, and expired prescription medicine was collected at more than 5,800 sites. How can college campuses get involved in the next take back day this October?

Dhillon: First, let me thank IACLEA (International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators) and NASPA (National Association of Student Personnel Administrators) for their partnership with DEA over the past three years. They have helped to promote National Prescription Drug Take Back Day and encourage colleges and universities to participate. 

Second, as I mentioned earlier, college students misuse a variety of prescription drugs—opioids, stimulants, sedatives. So colleges and universities know firsthand they are not immune from the crisis our nation faces around prescription drug misuse, so they are eager to get involved on their individuals campuses and in their surrounding communities to do what they can to address this issue. 

For college and university police departments that are interested in sponsoring a take back location on their campus, go to There is a section on the website for law enforcement agencies to get the DEA point of contact for their state.

Colleges and universities also can partner with their local community’s prescription drug take back efforts. If you are located in or nearby a city with a Drug Free Communities grant, it’s worth it to reach out to them to volunteer some help.

Lucey: Another of DEA’s high-profile efforts is Red Ribbon Week, which started more than 30 years ago following the kidnapping, torture, and murder of DEA Special Agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena. What makes Red Ribbon Week special and how can colleges and universities get involved?

Dhillon: Red Ribbon Week is special for two reasons. First, it honors the memory of Special Agent Camarena and the ultimate sacrifice that he made in the line of duty. It is a reminder of how dangerous our work can be as we carry out our mission. 

Second, Red Ribbon Week is a uniform way for individuals, families, and communities to take a stand against drugs and drug use. It’s important to note that we need to promote drug use prevention messages year round. But Red Ribbon Week gives us the opportunity to heighten awareness about the destructive effects of drug use in a concerted way. 

Colleges and universities can get involved by participating in our annual Campus Video PSA Contest. DEA will hold the 4th annual contest this fall, once again with our co-sponsor the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention. 

The college or university with the winning PSA will receive a plaque and $3,000 to support their campus’s drug abuse prevention efforts. To get more information and see past winning PSAs, go to our website and click on the link to Red Ribbon Week on the Resources page.

Lucey: Thank you for also talking about the PSA contest, because we’re really happy with it and the reception it has received in the field. The takeaway I get from your response is that while Red Ribbon Week is eight dedicated days in October, it really goes beyond that. Correct?
Dhillon: Absolutely. It’s a message that we need to be delivering year round.
Lucey: Absolutely. And we’re doing our part to that. And this just gives us an eight-day window to really highlight what’s going on with it. But you’re absolutely right. Prevention messaging needs to happen all year round.
So, with that, we’re going to conclude the interview. Again, Mr. Dhillon, I’m really really pleased that you were able to join us on this episode of the podcast. And thank you for your leadership here at DEA.
Dhillon: My pleasure. Thank you very much.