Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Drug War Racket

The Drug War Racket


Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.

Eric Hoffer

The Temper of Our Time


The history of Prohibition clearly follows the arc of Hoffer's aphorism.  Prohibition started as a religious and moral movement early in the nineteenth century, it developed into a business in the mid-twentieth century with laws prohibiting drugs other than alcohol.  Finally, the failed War on Drugs has degenerated into a racket. 

Prohibition started as a religious movement early in the nineteenth century when the secular republic of the Revolution turned to religion in the Second Great Awakening.  As it developed, it merged three different religious traditions.  The older Puritans, who had faded a century earlier, bequeathed the idea that society had a moral obligation to closely constrain public conformity.  The Evangelists who arose after about 1810 focused on sanctification, or that each person must lead a godly life to achieve salvation.  By the end of that century they were joined by the practitioners of the social gospel who believed in a mission to better social conditions and society itself.  The common thread holding all three together was an insistence on absolute sobriety.  They were able to impose their religious vision (whichever form it took) on the nation as a whole with the ratification of the Prohibition in 1919.  When Prohibition was repealed, the Dry true believers simply switched their allegiance to the new drug prohibition that developed in the 1920s.  Some even continued giving the same speeches, merely substituting the word “drugs” for “alcohol”.  Even today this absolute moralistic core resonates with many Drug Warriors who still see all drugs (or at least selected “bad” drugs) as evil and who insist on total, nationwide sobriety.

When Prohibition – of both alcohol and other drugs – came into effect in the 1920s, the moral crusade for total sobriety morphed into a business of enforcement.  The commercialization actually started in the late nineteenth century with the opening of inebriation asylums and sobriety clinics.  In the twentieth, they were joined by healers working against drug addiction – in fact the term ”addict” itself grew from those efforts.  They grew from city clinics to institutes trying to break the grip of drugs on their users.  In the mid-30s even the prison system joined in this professional effort with the opening of the federal “narcotic farms” in Lexington and Fort Worth.  These, in turn, became the foundation of the medical profession’s work in the field of drug abuse.  The professionalization of rehabilitation and drug medicine was joined by that of drug policing.  By 1930 both the Prohibition Bureau (later merged into the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agency) and the Bureau of Narcotics (forerunner of the current Drug Enforcement Agency) had become regular civil service bureaus.

The new business of Prohibition slogged along unsuccessfully for a half a century (that’s right: more than fifty years elapsed between the Harrison Narcotic Act and the Controlled Substances Act) before it was supercharged by the War on Drugs and greedily expanded into a racket.  Over a trillion dollars has been thrown to greedy sharks, and drug use is more wide-spread than ever.

From 1970 to 2010 prison population expanded from under 500,000 to over 2,000,000 – most of it from drug arrests.  Private for-profit corporations rushed in to build prisons and operate them under state contracts – and they insured those profits gained with massive campaign contributions and lobbying.  The California Corrections Officers association quickly became one of the richest and most powerful political associations in the state.  Dependence therapy and rehabilitation, a small medical specialty since the 1920s, blossomed into a nationwide industry with major chains of treatment organizations, often run by hucksters and quacks. 

The federal government also poured two massive torrents of money into Prohibition that turned policing into a for-profit racket.   The first was a series of grants, both money and military surplus equipment (which is why even small town police have tanks).  These were primarily based on numbers of arrests, and marijuana arrests are easy to make[1].  The second War on Drugs innovation was civil forfeiture of any assets used in the commission of a crime or acquired through criminal proceeds[2].  Those funds go directly to the police agencies (federal and local) outside of their normal budgetary procedures and constraints.  One Texas sheriff uses part of his forfeited assets to throw regular beer and barbeque gatherings for his deputies.  This process has also allowed major drug kingpins to bribe their way into much shorter prison sentences.

Hoffer’s map traces the trajectory of Prohibition from crusade to business to racket, but it is incomplete.  Every arc comes to an end, but Hoffer gives no clue to what that end may be.  Like a fly ball, it could fall outside the fence for a score or into a fielder’s glove for an out.  Like a cannonball, it could bury itself in the dirt or blow up a fort.  Like a meteor, it could burn out as a fiery streak across the sky or crash into the Gulf of Mexico destroying the dinosaurs and most other life.  The arc of Prohibition must end.  It is up to us to make sure its end comes quickly and does as little harm as possible.


[1] See my earlier “Policing for Profit”.
[2] Soon to come on this blog: “Robbery in Blue”.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Cease Fire?

Cease Fire?


Has the Obama administration declared a cease fire in the War on Drugs?  The evidence surely points in that direction.

In 2008, Candidate Obama made several remarks suggesting that he intended to liberalize marijuana laws.  Many of his supporters became critical when most of his first administration passed without action on these statements.  But toward the end of that term the Justice Department issued the Ogden memorandum, stating that it would not prosecute medical marijuana users or their caregivers complying with state medical marijuana laws.

After the 2012 elections, Obama was faced with additional challenges in drug law enforcement.  Washington and Colorado both passed initiatives legalizing marijuana sales and possession, new states recognized medical use of marijuana (raising the total to twenty-one jurisdictions doing so), and congressional sequestration dramatically reduced the funds available for law enforcement.  Eight months passed before the administration responded to those events, but when they came, they were sweeping[1].

The first break was an announcement by Attorney General Holder that he was instructing federal prosecutors to draft charging instruments (complaints and indictments) to avoid imposing mandatory minimum sentences in non-violent drug cases.  He supported this instruction by showing the immense burden these lengthy sentences placed on the prison system.

Toward the end of August, a memorandum from Asst. A-G Cole announced that the federal government would abstain from proceeding against state marijuana laws and their implementation if those laws complied with eight standards articulated in that memorandum.  To a large extent, those standards provide guidelines for other states wanting to enact similar laws.  Senator Patrick Leahy convened a hearing by the Judiciary Committee to inquire about this memo.  The hearing lasted one day, Cole was the only federal spokesman to appear, and only one witness – a professional anti-drug advocate with financial interests in the rehabilitation industry – was opposed to the action taken by the government.

On the same day the Cole memo was released, A-G Holder announced he would be conferring with federal bank regulators to find some way for businesses in compliance with these new state laws to use normal commercial banking services.  Up until now the government has used the threats against banks under the Money Laundering and RICO/CCE laws to prevent them from doing business with marijuana enterprises legal under state laws.  Forcing these enterprises to operate on a cash basis not only made them hard to manage, it also made them into targets for robbery.  About six weeks after Holder’s announcement, Bank of America has agreed to be a depository for all marijuana taxes and license fees collected by Washington State.  Since large banks operate very cautiously, this action by BoA suggests some accommodation by the federal bank regulators in line with the Holder announcement.

The other collateral attack used by aggressive federal prosecutors against state-legal marijuana has been to use asset forfeiture laws (CCE) against landlords leasing property to marijuana businesses.  If an asset – including real property – is used in the commission of a federal crime, that asset may be seized and forfeited to the government.  In a sense asset forfeiture is the government’s biggest stick against marijuana businesses: if landlords are scared away from leasing to them, legitimate businesses are reduced to being street dealers.  From this viewpoint, the announcement a few days ago by one of the most aggressive U. S. Attorneys in California dismissing four large asset forfeiture cases was a bombshell.  It took a major weapon out of play and put it back on the shelf.

One executive voice has been strangely missing from this flurry of federal actions.  The Office of National Drug Control Policy, the agency designated by Congress to set and articulate the government’s drug strategy has said almost nothing about these developments.  In fact, except for its required annual report, it has said nothing of substance.

In summary, over the last two months, the administration has:

·         Decided not to use mandatory minimum sentences,

·         Acquiesced in state marijuana legalization laws,

·         Announced a review of banking regulations to allow state-legal businesses to have access to banking services (and Bank of America has entered the business),

·         Dismissed a series of large, high-profile asset forfeiture cases.

Combining these four major reductions in drug law enforcement with the eight month delay between the 2012 election results and their announcements leads to the conclusion that the administration has declared a cease fire in the War on Drugs – at least in the War on marijuana.  If this cease fire continues for another thirteen months, the next round of elections should usher in a new group of legalizing states, possibly four or five more.  If this does result, the cease fire will become a fait accompli: an irrevocable accession to state-by-state legalization.

Why do I characterize this as a cease fire instead of a truce or even a surrender?  The problem is that the administration can only decide how to pursue the War on Drugs; it cannot decide on its own to end the war.  Only congress can end the war, and it has shown no inclination to do so.  When will congress admit that they have lost the war and repeal Drug Prohibition?

One hopeful sign has been the silence from Capitol Hill.  No elected Drug Warriors have been screaming for punishing the legalizing states; no committee hearings have pushed stricter enforcement.  The silence is deafening.  One more election may shift the congressional balance of power and change this cease fire into a peace treaty.

[1] For a running account of these developments, see my earlier “Whatcha Goona Do?”, “Six Months”, “They Blinked”, “Ogden and Cole”, and “Parsing the Cole Memo”.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Range of Legalization

The Range of Legalization

I originally wrote this for a group working to modernize the marijuana laws in Texas.  But as I was writing it, I realized that most of it is general enough to apply anywhere.  The main thrust is that a reformed law will have a broad and beneficial effect on many aspects of society.  So, ignore the Texas-specific parts and use those parts that apply to your state.


Selling Marijuana to Texas

After reading Grieder’s “Hot, Wide, Cheap, and Right” that I recommended last week, I started thinking about how we try to sell marijuana reform to both the Lege and fellow Texans.  And I have concluded that we need to change the main thrust of our argument.

Most of the time, we have stressed the negative: “Quit putting people in jail for marijuana”; “don’t come between a patient and a doctor.”  We can’t E-lim-i-nate the negative altogether, but we can soft=tone it while we AC-cent-u-ate the Positive:  We can talk about the good marijuana can do for Texas.  We can switch to the positive by talking about six things: commerce, agriculture, energy, medicine, technology, and higher education.

COMMERCE:  The growth in commerce will be astonishing.  Even the smallest town will have at least one retailer, who rents or owns a store and may have employees.  Packagers and distributors will supply them; and they in turn will need truckers, label printers, and container makers.  Those providing marijuana edibles need commercial kitchens, cooks, and display areas.  Hemp clothing, food and cosmetics will continue to be sold, but they will probably be made from locally grown hemp.  A glance at the display next to the cash register in any convenience store will show how the market for accessories will thrive

AGRICULTURE: Texas has always been known for its vigorous agricultural sector.  Marijuana can expand agriculture in three ways.  Marijuana can be a field crop, much like the vegetables grown in many parts of the state, or it can be a specialty product grown in greenhouses.  Hemp, with its stalks, is a fiber crop to challenge cotton or wool, or it can be grown for its seeds and oil.  For many hemp products, the change will be that they are made from locally grown hemp instead of imported.  Most of these farmers will hire laborers.  The farm supply industry will sell them seeds, fertilizer, and pesticides; greenhouse growers will also need high-end environmental control and hydroponic systems.  Farm machinery manufacturers will quickly provide equipment for hemp cultivation and harvest, and marijuana harvesting gear will soon follow.

ENERGY:  The energy business has been the keystone of Texas industry for a century.  Recently it has moved past sole reliance on oil to add natural gas and, more recently, renewables like ethanol and wind power.  Hemp can provide renewable fuel.  Prototypes have been demonstrated both for biodiesel from hempseed oil and for cellulosic ethanol from hemp stems and leads.  Both of these need significant development before emerging as competitors for petroleum fuels, but the established energy companies have the knowledge, technology, and resources to do that development and have the marketing outlets and incentives to do so.  The close geographical and transportation ties between these industries and the envisioned Texas hemp cultivation should prove synergistic.

MEDICINE:  Although therapeutic use of marijuana has become well established over the last forty years, federal prohibition has virtually squelched basic research.  Many fundamental questions of both physiology and pharmacology remain unanswered.  Texas contains some of the world’s leading medical research institutions.  The Houston Medical Center, including M. D. Anderson, is a good example of the resources available to pursue this research and to advance treatment if Prohibition is ended.

TECHNOLOGY:  Most of the developments discussed above call for technological improvements on the way to market.  Agriculture needs tools for tillage, harvest, and product processing.  Energy needs process and chemical engineering to move from prototype to commercial production and distribution.  Medical research has barely begun.  These technologies – agriculture, fuel and chemical processing, medical technology, and transportation – are those in which Texas already excels.  Legalizing marijuana would play into Texas strengths and allow it to build a dominant position in a new industry.

HIGHER EDUCATION:  In the same way, Texas higher education is well placed to advance this new industry.  Texas A&M and Texas Tech are at the fore in agricultural science and technology.  Many Texas universities have outstanding programs in energy and process engineering and in medical science and engineering.  They, too, could build on their already proven abilities.

This brief outline shows ways in which legalizing marijuana could broadly benefit all Texans: that it is not just coddling stoners or excusing junk medicine.  However, my perspective, while broad, lacks depth.  I invite those with more knowledge than me (not a very high standard) in agriculture, economics, engineering, and business to expand these sketchy overviews and provide some substance.

If each of my little paragraphs could be expanded to a few pages of solid detail, he result would be a pamphlet capable of convincing large numbers of people.  A press run of a thousand would supply every elected official, state and federal, every university president, and the major state news outlets.  Placement on the Web would make it available to millions.


Is this a project we can do?  Who will join me on this?