Shocking, police as proxy tax collectors don’t like legalization (but state and local governments will)! Changes are already being felt. Narcotics investigators in both Colorado and Washington say they are now focusing more on heroin trade, and the task forces are seeing fewer asset forfeitures from marijuana cases.
The following article by Zusha Elinson was published in the Wall Street Journal January 10, 2014:
MILL CREEK, Wash.—A drug task force in Washington’s Snohomish County has historically been funded in part by cash, cars, houses and other assets seized from marijuana purveyors. But with recreational pot becoming legal in the state, this funding is going up in smoke.
Snohomish’s 22-officer drug-fighting operation, one of 19 such task forces in the state, brought in about $200,000 from forfeitures in marijuana cases in 2012—15% of its funding that year; the haul has exceeded $1 million in years past. The task force has a piece of land, seized from a pot grower, where it stores seized vehicles awaiting auction and trims with a riding mower confiscated in a drug bust.
The county’s task force has already slashed its projected funding for this year by more than 15%, partially because of a decline in revenue from asset forfeitures in pot cases, said task force Commander Pat Slack. That will mean less money for overtime, training and new equipment, said Mr. Slack, a vocal opponent of legalization.
With marijuana legalized for those at least 21 years old in Washington later this year and in Colorado as of Jan. 1, law-enforcement agencies in those states expect to lose millions in revenue gained from assets seized from growers and dealers.
Those funds may be difficult to recoup. In Washington, at least, tax money from marijuana sales won’t go to law enforcement. That means that cuts may be coming, particularly for interagency drug task forces, which don’t have the same dedicated sources of funding that city police departments do.
Washington residents voted to earmark tax revenue from legal pot sales to education, health care, research and substance-abuse prevention, but not to law enforcement. Colorado lawmakers can choose to spend some of the money on law enforcement, according to Daria Serna, a spokeswoman from that state’s department of revenue.
Supporters of legalization say steering law enforcement away from marijuana will allow police to focus on more serious crimes.
Alison Holcomb, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who was lead author of the Washington pot-legalization ballot measure, said no taxes were earmarked for law enforcement “in part because we’re making this substance legal. It doesn’t make sense there would be an increased need for law enforcement.”
Law-enforcement officials counter there will still be a need to police such things as driving while high, underage marijuana consumption and unlicensed growing facilities.
Ms. Holcomb said forfeiture laws have encouraged law enforcement to chase after assets instead of crime. Opponents of legalization and narcotics officers counter that forfeiture is an important tool for fighting drug kingpins, and doesn’t determine which cases get investigated.
Nationally, assets forfeited in marijuana cases from 2002 through 2012 accounted for $1 billion of the $6.5 billion from all drug busts, according to data from the Justice Department on forfeitures processed by the federal government for local and federal law enforcement. Assets can be seized under federal or state law, depending on the situation.
In Washington, forfeitures from pot cases processed by the federal government totaled $18.6 million from 2002 through 2012. Local law enforcement generated an additional $18 million in funding from forfeitures under state law in all types of drug cases in the five years ended in 2012, according to the state treasurer. Roughly one-third to one-half of that revenue typically comes from pot cases, according to a review of agencies’ records.
In Colorado, forfeitures from pot cases processed by the federal government totaled nearly $18 million over the decade ended in 2012.
These sums are small fractions of the budgets for all law-enforcement agencies in these states. But the funds have become an important source of revenue, particularly for drug task forces, many of which otherwise rely on federal grants, forfeitures from other drug cases, and labor costs borne by local police agencies with officers on the task forces.
Other types of drug cases won’t automatically fill the void. Marijuana is easier than other drugs for police to spot—because of its distinct odor and the permanence of growing operations—and to parlay into property seizures.
“The advantage with marijuana is that it’s one location, and you can make a lot money off of one grow,” said Matthew York, a Seattle attorney who handled forfeiture cases for two separate drug task forces in the area. “These other drug dealers, they make a lot of money, but they’re harder to find.”
Changes are already being felt. Narcotics investigators in both states say they are focusing more on the heroin trade, and task forces are seeing fewer asset forfeitures from marijuana cases as they pursue fewer pot investigations.
The U.S. Department of Justice has pledged a hands-off approach, though marijuana is still illegal under federal law.
Mike Cooke, commander of the Clark County task force in Washington, said he expected a drop in “forfeitures related to marijuana” but he added, “There is plenty of heroin and cocaine to keep us busy.”
Tom Gorman, director of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program in Denver, said growers and sellers who flout state law could be targeted—but just discovering pot grows won’t lead to forfeitures anymore.
“If they’re diverting or selling marijuana out of state, unless you catch them at it, they’re legal operations, so you’re not going to seize their property.”
Write to Zusha Elinson at email@example.com