The Obama Administration and Congress continue to send conflicting messages about the cultivation and recreational use of marijuana. While such use of the drug remains against federal law, the government has been expending taxpayer dollars to wipe out entire crops.
As reported by The Washington Post, the Drug Enforcement Agency spent some $18 million in 2015 pulling up pot plants and destroying growing operations indoors and outdoors. Now, while that was slightly less than the previous year, it still represents a sizeable investment of manpower and resources being expended on behalf of a president who once said of pot law enforcement that the government has "bigger fish to fry."
Apparently not. According to recently released federal figures, in 2015 local, state and federal authorities uprooted about 4.1 million cultivated pot plants in all 50 states, which again was less than the 4.3 million plants the year before, but not by much. Federal spending on eradication programs, at $18 million, remained consistent with levels seen in previous years. That works out to about $4.42 per plant, or slightly more than the cost of $4.20 per plant in 2014.
Through the DEA the government provides funding to 128 state and local law enforcement agencies, as well as some state National Guard units, to aggressively search for and destroy marijuana grows around the country.
Congress needs to act
Not all the funding comes from taxpayers – at least in the traditional sense. Much of it comes from a dubious source: the Justice Department's civil assets forfeiture fund, itself a controversial program that essentially allows state and local (and federal) law enforcement officials to confiscate private property on the flimsiest of legal ground. On his way out as attorney general, Eric Holder made a major policy revisionreinstated it.
This, in many cases, ill-gotten booty has providing funding for state and local departments to engage in aerial operations using helicopters to scour the countryside for pot grow operations (the Guard does the same thing). And sometimes, as the Post noted, those involved in these aerial operations get a little overzealous and destroy perfectly legal plants – like okra.
There have been additional attempts to reform this messy process. As the Post noted further:
Last year, a group of lawmakers led by Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) tried to pass legislation to redirect marijuana eradication funds to perhaps more productive uses, such as domestic violence prevention programs. The effort was ultimately unsuccessful, and Lieu is dismayed to see the program continue.
Can we get this figured out?
"Marijuana needs to be removed from Schedule I classification, and DEA should stop this wasteful program," he told the paper via email.
That would take congressional action and, so far, no legislation is forthcoming, though some of the majority Republicans have introduced legislation that would revise drug laws to permit states to determine their own path forward when it comes to legalization and sale of pot.
What's even more confusing about all of this is that in two states that recently legalized recreational pot use – Oregon and Washington – eradication efforts have continued there as well. Though full state-by-state breakdowns are not yet available, a DEA spokesman told the Post that just shy of 36,000 marijuana plants were destroyed in Washington in 2015, at cost of about $950,000, or 26 bucks per plant, roughly.
However, two states actually declined DEA eradication funds last year: Alaska and Colorado, the latter of which has legalized pot as well.