The Seattle Times ran a story last week about the DEA continuing its marijuana eradication program even in states with legal marijuana like Washington. The DEA authorizes funding for state law enforcement to search for and eradicate marijuana, generally on public land.
Several of our clients asked us about this story, wanting to know if it meant the DEA was also taking action against state-legal marijuana businesses. Fortunately that is not the case. The DEA eradication program is specifically targeted at illegal operations on public lands. Federal law enforcement is going after cannabis grows it claims are operated by Mexican cartels. Regardless of who runs these cannabis grows, they are not compliant with state law. Under current federal enforcement policy, the federal government still has free reign to support law enforcement action against marijuana operations that are outside the bounds of a state-regulated system.
On one hand, this eradication program is in the best interests of compliant, tax-paying marijuana businesses as it eradicates competition from illegal cannabis. If we are going to have a Drug Enforcement Agency to which Congress appropriates funds, we would prefer it spend its time and money seeking to eradicate illegal marijuana grows than going after state-legal cannabis businesses. Even if the DEA is only scratching the surface with the total amount of marijuana it seizes, the mere threat of these eradication efforts forces illegal cannabis growers to try harder to hide their products, increasing their costs and forcing them to sell at a higher price. Anything that increases the legal market’s competitive edge against the illegal market has some benefit to our clients who pay taxes and registration fees and operate fully above board. Finally, illegal, unregulated cultivation on public land, often in national parks or national forests, can have significant negative impacts on the environment.
Still, we have to ask if local marijuana eradication is the best way for the federal government to spend its money. In 2016, the DEA spent $760,000 in Washington, $200,000 in Oregon, and $4.3 million in California on eradication efforts. In Washington, because of the mountainous areas where illegal grows are found, the per plant eradication cost is $26.49. That’s a huge cost per plant when evidence has shown that these eradication efforts have not significantly reduced the total amount of illegal marijuana making its way to market.
Like a lot of other government programs, it seems that much of the reason for continuing with the cannabis eradication program is that the money is easy for Congress to spend and law enforcement jobs remain secure so long as they continue to receive this kind of money. If the federal government were serious about the ecological concerns of illegal marijuana growing, the eradication program would be run by the United States Forest Service or the Department of Interior or the EPA. Not by the state highway patrol with funding from the DEA.
One of the most pernicious challenges for marijuana decriminalization nationwide is the continued financial interest of those politically popular groups that generate revenue from illegality. Law enforcement and corrections officers represent a huge and organized political constituency, and though they don’t all speak with one voice (see Law Enforcement Against Prohibition), they tend to favor anti-cannabis programs that keep federal funds flowing their way because of the security it brings to the agencies as a whole and to the individual law enforcement officers. So long as marijuana remains illegal, we will throw money at quixotic eradication efforts.
In discussing this money tug, Lt. Chris Sweet of the Washington State Patrol told the Seattle Times that public perception that the money can be used for other programs like education and treatment is “definitely a big concern.” The pie is only so big, and those of us who think the money would be better spent on education or treatment need to make our voices heard too.