Justice

How the DEA Profits off the War on Drugs

The Drug Enforcement Administration has a vested interest in the War on Drugs, the federal government's decades-long mission to eradicate drug use in the U.S. Not only does it support the federal agency's core goal — to "enforce the controlled substances laws and regulations of the United States" — but it also serves the criminal justice system on a financial level, allowing the agency to profit off enforcement through budget requests and a civil asset forfeiture program. 

Tough drug laws demand greater financial resources, a larger slice of the federal budget from the U.S. government. That's one theory as to why the DEA continues to enforce federal marijuana laws in legal states, despite public condemnation: It pays to criminalize pot.

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The DEA has an entire department, the Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program, dedicated to the enforcement of marijuana laws under the Controlled Substances Act, which strictly prohibits the use, cultivation, and sale of cannabis in the U.S. Federal law regards marijuana as a Schedule I drug — as addictive and dangerous as heroin. Schedule 1 drugs are considered the most dangerous drugs and to have no “accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” according to the DEA. 

DEA marijuana

But there's another controversy behind marijuana that you might not know about.

So it makes sense that the DEA would resist changes in public opinion and state marijuana laws. Without weed, the agency would have to rely on demand for the enforcement of other drugs to justify their tall budget requests. And as it notes on its website, marijuana is the "only major drug of abuse grown within the U.S. borders." It's also the most commonly abused illegal drug in the country, according to National Institutes of Health.

But the War on Drugs doesn't just help the agency bolster its budget. Another controversial program allows the agency to seize the money and "assets" of people and businesses it suspects of violating federal drug laws.

The civil asset forfeiture program

In 2014, the Department of Justice took in about $3.9 billion worth of civil asset forfeitures, more than doubling what the agency seized in 2005, The Wall Street Journal reported. The DEA contributes to those funds by seizing assets in suspected drug-related cases. A statistical report from the DEA's 2014 fiscal year shows that it seized more than $27 million is assets through the cannabis enforcement program alone.

Under the "asset forfeiture program," the DEA can take your money even if you haven't been charged or convicted of a drug-related crime. Sure, you can try to fight the forfeiture in court if you feel you've been wronged, but that can be a costly legal battle.

RELATED: Top White House Drug Official Says War on Drugs is a Failure

John Oliver breaks this down this "Last Week Tonight" clip:


The funds seized through the forfeiture program are used, in part, to finance drug enforcement efforts. And as the agency has previously argued, its efforts are primarily aimed at illegal drug trafficking networks operating in the country. Still, there are problems with the program. Critics point to a number of cases where they allege assets were wrongfully seized by federal agencies such as the DEA.

In April, for example, a New Mexico man named Joseph Rivers lost his life savings after a DEA agent boarded a train he was on and seized an envelope that contained about $16,000 in cash. Rivers was headed to Los Angeles to start a music video production company, he told the agent, who was apparently asking everybody on the train where they were going and why.

The agent asked to search Rivers's bag and he compiled. When the agent found the envelope, Rivers was suspected of involvement in drug-related activities; and while he wasn't charged or convicted of any crimes (the agent found no evidence—no drugs, no firearms, nothing but the money), the DEA seized every penny under the asset forfeiture program.

"Rivers's life savings represent just a drop in the Justice Department's multibillion-dollar civil asset forfeiture bucket," the Washington Post reported. "There is no presumption of innocence under civil asset forfeiture laws. Rather, law enforcement officers only need to have a suspicion—in practice, often a vague one—that a person is involved with illegal activity in order to seize their property."

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DEA

While a number of advocacy organizations have called for an end to (or amendment of) the department's civil asset forfeiture program, the issue has often been underrepresented in debates about criminal justice reform. That said, the Department of Justice recently announced the end of one component of the program, known as the "equitable-sharing" program.

That program enabled local and state law enforcement to prosecute asset forfeiture cases under federal law, as opposed to state law, in order to reap 80 percent of the assets seized. Under most state laws, the portion that law enforcement is allowed to claim is significantly lower. In California, for example, police can only take up to 66.25 percent.

The decision to end the program has been met with widespread condemnation by federal law enforcement officials, including U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch. In a letter addressed to President Barack Obama and members of Congress, Lynch expressed "profound concern" over the issue, writing that it "will have a significant and immediate impact on the ability of law enforcement agencies throughout the nation to protect their communities and provide their citizens with the services they expect and deserve."

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But many criminal justice reform advocates disagree with Lynch's rationale, arguing that the fraction of money law enforcement agencies acquire through asset forfeiture law should not influence their ability to serve and protect.

In response to reactions such as Lynch's, Lee McGrath, Legislative Counsel at the Institute for Justice, issued the following statement:

"Law enforcement revealed that its true interest in forfeiture is policing for profit—not public safety. The recently enacted Consolidated Appropriations Act does not stop police and prosecutors from chasing criminals. They’re frustrated because Congress put on hold their chasing cash. Many police, sheriffs and prosecutors want to circumvent state laws because outsourcing forfeiture litigation to the federal government is lucrative."