Pubdate: Fri, 10 Jan 2014
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2014 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: Zusha Elinson


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."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom