Legal marijuana snuffing out eradication program
The multi-million dollar federal marijuana eradication program may be on its last legs as more states legalize the drug and results of the program decline.
Since 2010, funding for the program has been relatively stable, yet states receiving the money have reported 35 percent fewer arrests and 58 percent fewer marijuana plants seized. In Ohio, where voters will decide on marijuana legalization in November, those decreases are even larger — 86 percent fewer arrests and 75 percent fewer plants.
In June, the U.S. House approved a California congressman’s proposal to slash the Drug Enforcement Agency’s $18 million state marijuana eradication budget in half. While 183 members of Congress voted against the budget legislation where the proposal appeared, no one spoke against it in session.
Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, said it’s just a matter of time before the program is defunded altogether.
“The thinking is there’s just better things for the DEA to focus their resources on now,” Riffle said, noting the nation’s opiate epidemic.
Congressman Ted Lieu, R-California, brought forth the funding cut and has pledged to bring forward legislation to cut the program entirely next year.
“This is a ridiculous waste of precious federal resources, especially when multiple states and jurisdictions have already legalized marijuana,” Lieu said in a June news release. “It is time for the federal government to stop making marijuana use or possession a federal crime.”
Worth the cost?
The DEA began funding marijuana eradication efforts in Hawaii and California in 1979. By 1985, all 50 states had jumped on board to nab a bit of the money, even though not all of them do so now. How much a state gets is based on several factors including past performance, perceived threat and how well they cooperate with the DEA, agency spokeswomen Barbara Carreno said.
The eradication money comes from forfeitures of cash and property, such as vehicles, during drug cases. Between 2010 and 2014, the DEA set aside $104.8 million for marijuana eradication with 85 percent of that going to states and the remainder for the agency’s own eradication efforts.
States submit a request for money and are provided an allowance they can spend. If a state doesn’t use all of its money, the DEA gives it to someone else, Carreno said. Between 2010 and 2015, states didn’t use $4.1 million, about 5 percent of the approved budget.
Lieu’s state of California received the largest amount, about $27.2 million between 2010 and 2014. While the state has ret
urned the largest dollar amount between 2010 and 2014 — nearly $2.1 million — Maine has returned the largest percentage of its allocation: 39 percent.
Ohio’s Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation received about $500,000 each of the last five years. It forfeited money once — nearly $25,000 in 2013. The bureau works with law enforcement agencies around the state to fly over fields and forests to look for marijuana.
Over the past five years, Ohio spent more than $2 million — 80 percent of the DEA funds — on aircraft and nearly $361,000 on overtime. Ohio’s efforts resulted in the seizure of 228,204 marijuana plants over those five years, with nearly half of those discovered in 2010.
One of those finds came in August 2010 in Pike County where officials discovered 22,000 marijuana plants and abandoned camp sites where people had been stationed guarding the crop. The following month, hunters tipped off officials to another camp and grow site at the Coshocton/Muskingum county line where upwards of 6,000 plants were found and 11 men taken into custody.
Despite those large grow sites making 2010 a banner year, seizures since 2012 have been about half of what was seized in 2009 and 2011.
As for decreases in arrests, Del Greco said tracking down growers can be tricky.
“For example, if plants are spotted in a corn field, it’s typically not the farmer who put them there but someone who trespassed on the property. If the plants are found in someone’s backyard, an arrest could be more likely,” she said.
Del Greco speculated that in some cases, arrests after additional investigation may not be reported to the DEA.
The number of plants being seized and arrests made nationally has seen a similar decline, which Carreno chalks up to a “perfect storm of factors” and not a sign that the program needs to change to be more effective. Weather, such as the intense drought in California, tightening law enforcement budgets, and changing grow tactics, such as indoor cultivation, impact eradication efforts.
Although marijuana seizure numbers fluctuate for various reasons, Riffle said law enforcement just isn’t as focused on marijuana.
“(The decrease) shows the failure of a law enforcement approach,” said Riffle, a former prosecutor in Vinton County.
The national decrease also is reflective of changing state laws. Nearly half of the nation has legalized marijuana to some extent and Ohio voters will be voting on ResponsibleOhio’s issue in November that would legalize the drug for recreational use.
Although marijuana remains illegal under federal law, Congress recently has begun examining changes — for example, an appropriations committee voted to allow federal banks to handle funds from legal marijuana businesses — that imply federal legality may be around the corner.
Legality also would mean less demand for illegal grows, Riffle said, and why the eradication efforts won’t be needed. He predicts that Lieu’s wish to eradicate the marijuana eradication budget may not happen this year, but within the next decade.
“It’s going to happen pretty quickly, that shift,” he said.
But for now, it’s still illegal and remains part of the DEA’s focus.
“(The) DEA has always focused its resources on large-scale drug trafficking organizations. Our field divisions prioritize the biggest, most important cases, and if those include marijuana cases, we don’t shy away from them,” Carreno said.
In the meantime, Del Greco contends Ohio law enforcement remains interested in marijuana eradication despite the drain on resources to attack the heroin problem.
“The efforts to legalize marijuana have not lowered participation in the program because marijuana cultivation is still illegal. And, although many local agencies are dedicating resources towards the opiate epidemic, participating in the eradication program does not cost the local agency anything besides manpower,” she said.
If that “free” money from the feds goes away, cash-strapped agency interest in eradication is likely to follow. And that’s OK, according to Riffle; because if marijuana is legal and regulated like alcohol, then people won’t be illegally growing it in large quantities in the nation’s parks and forests.
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