Politicized law enforcement

The head of the Drug Enforcement Administration shouldn’t care about, or issue press releases about, the political activities of the people DEA arrests. Selling pot is illegal. Working to repeal that law isn’t.

Somehow I missed this when it happened &#8212 though Radley Balko covered it &#8212 but apparently a major Canadian marijuana-seed dealer and marijuana-legalization activist named Marc Emery got busted by DEA last year for selling seeds that reached U.S. growing operations. No real news there, though putting him on a list of major international drug-dealing organizations seems like rather stretching things.

The shocking thing was the press statement put out in the name of the DEA Administrator, Karen Tandy. Here’s what appears to be the full text:

Today’s DEA arrest of Marc Scott Emery, publisher of Cannabis Culture Magazine, and the founder of a marijuana legalization group — is a significant blow not only to the marijuana trafficking trade in the U.S. and Canada, but also to the marijuana legalization movement.

His marijuana trade and propagandist marijuana magazine have generated nearly $5 million a year in profits that bolstered his trafficking efforts, but those have gone up in smoke today.

Emery and his organization had been designated as one of the Attorney General’s most wanted international drug trafficking organizational targets — one of only 46 in the world and the only one from Canada.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars of Emery’s illicit profits are known to have been channeled to marijuana legalization groups active in the United States and Canada. Drug legalization lobbyists now have one less pot of money to rely on.

DEA’s job is enforcing the laws, not deciding what the laws should be. I’ve always been uncomfortable about the large dose of drug-war propaganda that goes with DEA’s “demand reduction” efforts. (Somehow, in the DEA imagination, “demand reduction” never involves treating people with drug addiction, but that’s a different problem.)

But that press statement went beyond engaging an enforcement agency in a political struggle; it seemed to make the enforcement effort the servant of that struggle, by targeting a defendant based in part on his advocacy activities. And if the plan is to try to make the pro-pot groups to which Emery contributed criminally liable because his money was illegally earned, that would constitute a substantial prosecutorial over-reach.

Not good. And it might even keep the defendant &#8212 who is obviously as guilty as sin of what he’s charged with doing &#8212 out of prison; it will be an issue at his extradition hearing and, potentially, again at his trial, which will take place in relatively pot-friendly Seattle.

Footnote The .pdf of the DEA press release is on the website of Cannabis Culture, whose publisher is none other than the defendant in the case. I can’t find that document elsewhere; in particular, it’s not on the DEA website. I suppose it’s possible that the release is a hoax; I’d certainly like to think so. But DEA doesn’t seem to have denounced it as such when a columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer quoted the key paragraphs last August. More likely it was the result of a not-too-bright press officer getting carried away. But it says something bad about the atmosphere at DEA that such a document could even be drafted, let alone get out the door.

Update A reader found the link to the press release, still up on the DEA website. I was hoping that at least someone at DEA HQ had thought better of it and taken the release down.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com