The Real Reason Pot Is Still Illegal
Marijuana-law reform has created deep divisions within police agencies. A recent poll of officers found that nearly two-thirds believed marijuana laws should be reformed—with 36 percent agreeing that marijuana should be legalized, regulated and taxed; 14 percent supporting relaxed penalties; 11 percent supporting legalized medical marijuana; and 4 percent supporting decriminalization.
Yet strong institutional forces have kept nearly every law enforcement professional association opposed to reform. Starting with the Reagan administration, police departments were encouraged to seize and sell property associated with drug busts, which significantly augmented their revenue. Between 2002 and 2012, law enforcement agencies collected about $1 billion from marijuana arrests, according to Justice Department data.
It was also during the 1980s that federal grant programs requiring police to engage in drug enforcement were expanded, including the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Program, which funds multijurisdictional drug task forces. The Byrne grants, which cover a range of drug enforcement actions including marijuana, provided over $2.4 billion for law enforcement agencies this fiscal year.
“It’s money,” says retired Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Stephen Downing, when asked why so many police organizations are lobbying against marijuana-law reform. “In many states, the city government expects police to make seizures, and they expect these seizures to supplement their budgets.” According to The Wall Street Journal, drug task forces in Washington State have predicted that asset-forfeiture revenues will decrease as a result of marijuana legalization.
Others dispute the notion. Bob Cooke, a former president of the California Narcotic Officers’ Association, asserts that “losing money from asset forfeiture is not why we believe [pot] should be regulated.” Instead, he argues, law enforcement agencies oppose legalizing marijuana because its use is inherently dangerous: “One try and it can ruin your life.”
But the fiscal impact on law enforcement has become part of the debate. Earlier this year, when Minnesota State Representative Carly Melin proposed a medical marijuana bill, she faced a backlash from police lobbyists. “There was a concern about losing federal grants tied to drug enforcement laws,” Melin says. “Asset forfeiture was briefly discussed as well.” She adds that law enforcement agencies approached her bill with “absolute opposition” but changed their position after widespread public pressure. Melin’s bill passed in May once patients and the parents of sick children began contacting lawmakers.
“It’s not hard to figure out that there’s a lot of money attached to enforcing marijuana laws,” Melin says. “Marijuana arrests still account for over 60 percent of drug arrests in Minnesota, so it’s still big business for law enforcement.” Minnesota’s numbers reflect the data compiled by the American Civil Liberties Union, which show that marijuana arrests account for more than half of all drug arrests nationwide.
Similar dynamics have played out elsewhere. When Californians debated a legalization initiative in 2010—which was ultimately unsuccessful—the lead organizer of the opposition was John Lovell, a longtime police lobbyist in Sacramento. Lovell has made a career of channeling federal “drug war” grants to law enforcement agencies in the state—including millions of dollars for the California Marijuana Suppression Program, grants for overtime pay for police, and money for additional officers dedicated to marijuana eradication.
In Florida, the state sheriffs’ association, led by Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, has become the public face of opposition to a medical marijuana referendum on the ballot this fall. Judd has deployed a number of arguments against the referendum, from the dangers of driving while high to increased workers’ compensation claims, to teenage addiction and increased respiratory illnesses.
But the annual strategic plan submitted to the Polk County Board of Commissioners by Judd’s office suggests another major concern. In it, Judd says that his force is “doing more with fewer resources” and that he’s had to cut seventeen deputy sheriff positions due to a lack of funds. Judd describes seizures from marijuana grow houses as a key revenue source for his department: seizing such property helps to “meet eligible equipment or other non-recurring needs that could not be met by local funding, thereby putting forfeited and unclaimed funds to work in crime prevention, for the taxpayer,” according to the document. Plus a Florida law enforcement newsletter describes the state’s marijuana eradication program—which brought in nearly $900,000 last year in forfeitures, and more than $1 million in previous years—as “an excellent return on investment.”
Downing, the retired LAPD deputy chief, notes: “The only difference now compared to the times of alcohol prohibition is that, in the times of alcohol prohibition, law enforcement—the police and judges—got their money in brown paper bags. Today, they get their money through legitimate, systematic programs run by the federal government. That’s why they’re using their lobbying organizations to fight every reform.”
Indeed, alcohol prohibition was ended partly through ethics reform. During Prohibition, the Eighteenth Amendment was enforced through a law called the Volstead Act, which exempted federal liquor enforcement agents from Progressive-era civil service exams. Without these exams, the Prohibition Unit became a vehicle for awarding patronage jobs to political allies. Almost immediately, these 18,000 federal jobs were marked by scandal and corruption. According to one Treasury agent, the “most extraordinary collection of political hacks, hangers-on, and passing highwaymen got appointed as prohibition agents.” They set up illegal roadblocks, killed innocent civilians, and extorted money from bootleggers rather than arresting them. The wet lobby successfully pushed to re-establish civil service exams for the Prohibition Unit in the late 1920s—a shift that embarrassed dry-lobby supporters, because nearly two-thirds of all agents couldn’t pass the entrance exam. Further weakening support for Prohibition, the Supreme Court declared it illegal in 1927 for local judges to pay themselves with a share of the fines collected from Volstead Act cases.
While not a perfect analogy, some marijuana advocates see the fight against Prohibition as a guide, since so many interest groups working to maintain the status quo today are tied to cash flows—whether federal grants or forfeiture revenues—that depend on keeping the drug illegal.
Prohibition provides “an incentive for these interest groups to keep seeking federal money to continue the ‘war on drugs’ [and] their own salaries,” says Representative Steve Cohen, one of the most outspoken proponents of legalization in Congress. Cohen adds that some of the most vociferous opponents of reform appear to be influenced by the money flowing from pot prohibition. “It’s a vicious cycle.”