Why Did the Feds Raid Medical Marijuana Clinics in Montana?

Last year, NORML’s Paul Armentano wrote an op-ed in which he optimistically claimed that:

â€ŦIn short, the only way to fully protect all our citizens from these kinds of abhorrent events (SWAT raids) is through the legalization and regulation of marijuana for all adults.

This is the conventional wisdom in the drug policy reform community, that successful marijuana legalization efforts will end SWAT raids and other violent enforcement tactics that are part and parcel of the War on Drugs. Lately, it has also been echoed by other notables in drug policy reform (Morgan Fox at the MPP comes to mind).

But it is wrong. It is wrong because the War on Drugs exists independent of marijuana prohibition. Ending marijuana prohibition is a necessary and liberty-enhancing imperative for this country, but it alone will not end the military-style raids on severely ill patients and businesses operating lawfully under state law.

It is common knowledge in the drug policy reform community that these raids are money-making ventures. We know that when federal agents raid lawful marijuana dispensaries they take money and jewelry from patients, seize the bank accounts of the business, and take nearly anything else of monetary value.

What is not commonly known or understood is how implicated these seizures are in the very foundation of the Drug War. A 1992 report on the Department of Justice’s new asset forfeiture programs notes:

â€ŦThey are based on a simple and clear set of objectives, namely to disrupt drug trafficking, take the profits out of crime, and pour the money or assets from these illegal activities back into the War on Drugs¦ (emphasis mine)

Note the direct intent of the Department of Justice: to create an off-budget, non-appropriated revenue stream to fund a War on Drugs. Taxpayers would not be so amenable to the militarization and federalization of domestic law enforcement if they had to pay for it, so the DOJ created a mechanism to end-run the entire democratic appropriations process.

The asset forfeiture system now exists to funnel money from the Department of Justice to the Pentagon (for military equipment like Bearcat tanks.50 caliber rifles, and to otherwise fund the domestic military/security/surveillance apparatus). It is this money that pays for the raids in Montana, and the money that can be seized from these raids is the reason why these raids will continue.

It is this mechanism, these asset forfeiture laws, that allows the seizure of property for the direct profit of law enforcement. This represents the critical, weak link at the heart of the War on Drugs; without the revenue stream to pay for this war, it would not exist. Moreover, a systemic incentive for government overreach would not exist, and our federal law enforcement would be far more in tune with the desires of legislators and citizens (which one might think would be appropriate for any kind of democratic governance).

There are 217 federal laws allowing the civil, criminal, or administrative forfeiture of property and some 30 federal agencies that split an annual haul that I estimate to be between $15 and $20 billion dollars per year. Against this reckless host, marijuana law reform is like cutting a head off a Hydra; there are innumerable ways to circumvent these reforms though administrative law.

So here’s what I say. Marijuana law reform is vital. But without disconnecting the incentive structure that allows the Drug War to exist, we are fighting a war of attrition by an enemy that repeatedly outflanks us on every side. Even where medical marijuana reform has been passed, we are seeing repeated and continuing efforts by a variety of federal agencies to deny the legitimacy of democratically created state law. We’ve already seen the IRS start by auditing and seizing legitimate businesses in California, and now Homeland Security is leading the raids in Montana in an obvious political play to influence the actions of the state legislature. Across America, even doctors have found themselves the victim of raids for daring to prescribe pain medications to severely ill individuals. I’d lay good money on the proposition that the EPA, with its broad administrative power to search and seize property, may soon get into the game. (Does anyone remember Donald Scott?)

Worse, federal agencies have an incentive to lobby legislators to expand the scope of criminal conduct as a means to take more property from more people. This is a vicious, sick feedback loop: to ensure that forfeiture money keeps pouring into federal coffers, the DEA, BATF, and DHS (among others) will this year continue to recommend to Congress that we increase the scope of activities defined by law as “criminal.

There can be no more serious issue in American governance. The existence of unaccountable, uncontrollable federal agencies who control their own funding will gut American democracy. The old Soviet ghost now animates the American police state.

Drug policy reformers should heed this call to re-engage the challenge of reforming America’s asset forfeiture laws. You’ll find it makes your marijuana reform efforts more successful, since government officials will no longer have an incentive to look for ways to circumvent your democratically won victories.


Eapen Thampy is the Executive Director of Americans for Forfeiture Reform

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  • Far too many people are unjustly targeted by aggressive police for modest, recreational use of marijuana, often with dire consequences. For a dramatic and page-turning look at this issue, check out the novel STASH published by Random House at http://www.bydavidklein.com.

  • Charlie M. Bacon Jr.

    It’s sad that the Federal Gov. don’t respect the voice of the people! And,they do as they please,without any consideration to State,or laws voted on by the people of that State. The real reason,”No Money In It For The Federal Gov.” I guess there is no such thing as”Freedom Of Choice”. And,being able to decide what kind of medicines we put into our bodies.”pharmaceutical Vs Natural”.

  • malcolm kyle

    Thanks to prohibition we’re about to lose all semblance of that once ordered, prosperous and safe society. Myself, along with many others, have been debating prohibitionists on this for many years. We have shown what destruction prohibition has wrought on all the civil institutions of this once great nation, -we’ve always provided facts and statistics – they, the prohibitionists, have countered with either lies, personal abuse or even serious threats of violence.

    Ending the insanity of drug prohibition by legalized regulation, respecting the rights of the responsible users and focusing on addiction as a sickness, like we do with alcohol and tobacco, may save what remains of our economy and civil institutions along with countless lives and livelihoods. Prohibition continues unabated for shameful political reasons. It cannot, and never will, reduce drug use or addiction.

    Prohibition has permanently scarred our national character as well as our individual psyches. Our national policies and cultural practices have become pervaded by the fascistic, prohibitionist mind-set which has turned our domestic police force into a bunch of paramilitary thugs who often commit extra-judicial beatings and executions while running roughshod over our rights in order to “protect us from ourselves”.

    When we eventually manage to put the horrors of this toxic moronothon behind us, we’ll need to engage in some very deep and honest soul-searching as to what we want to be as a nation. Many of our freedoms have been severely circumscribed or lost altogether, our economy has been trashed and our international reputation for being “free and fair” has been dragged through a putrid sewer by vicious narrow-minded drug warrior zealots who are ignorant of abstract concepts such as truth, justice and decency. We’ll need to make sure that such a catastrophe is never ever repeated. This may mean that public hearings or tribunals will be held where those who have been the instigators and cheerleaders of this abomination will have to answer for their serious crimes against our once prosperous and proud nation.

    Each day you remain silent, you help to destroy the Constitution, fill the prisons with our children, and empower terrorists and criminals worldwide while wasting hundreds of billions of your own tax dollars. Prohibition bears many strong and startling similarities to Torquemada­’s inquisition­, it’s supporters are servants of tyranny and hate. If you’re aware of but not enraged by it’s shear waste and cruel atrocities then both your heart and soul must surely be dead.

    Prohibition engendered black market profits are obscenely huge. Remove this and you remove the ability to bribe or threaten any government official or even whole governments. The argument that legalized regulation won’t severely cripple organized crime is truly bizarre. Of course, the bad guys won’t just disappear, but if you severely diminish their income, you also severely diminish their power. The proceeds from theft, extortion, pirated goods etc. are a drop in the ocean compared to what can be earned by selling prohibited/unregulated drugs in a black market estimated to be worth 400,000 million dollars. Without the lure and power of so much easy capital, it’s also very unlikely that new criminal enterprises will ever fill the void left by those you successfully disrupt or entirely eradicate.

    Millions of fearless North Africans have recently shown us that recognizing oppression also carries the weight of responsibility to act upon and oppose that oppression. Prohibition is a vicious anti-constitutional assault on ALL American citizens by a criminally insane and dysfunctional government, which left unchallenged will end with the destruction of the entire nation.

    “I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country”¦ Corporations have been enthroned, an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money-power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until the wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.”
    ““ Abraham Lincoln, November 12, 1864

    “Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends [life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness] it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government”¦”
    – The Declaration of Independence July 4, 1776

  • Green Thunder

    Nice of them to do it on the day they voted on the attempted Repeal of existing Montana Medical Laws…and they were foiled by a dead-lock. That repeal would’ve cleared their tracks nicely, I’m sure…