Marijuana is certainly not the most pressing crime problem in the United States — but local police departments, with chronic budget shortfalls, are concentrating more on pot busts than ever before, because “it’s where the money is,” according to one California sheriff.
In an era when law enforcement has been forced to lay off staff, reduce patrols and even release jail inmates, officers have found that going after marijuana growers and smokers makes them eligible for hefty federal anti-drug grants, reports Justin Scheck at The Wall Street Journal.
Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko said his department is eligible for roughly half a million dollars a year in federal anti-drug funding. The only problem is, most of the money has to be used to fight pot as part of the multi-agency, federally funded Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP).
The federal government has, for a long time, allocated money to help local communities fight crime, and influencing their law enforcement priorities in the process.
The budget squeezes in today’s weak economy has only enhanced this effect, which has become especially noticeable in California, where many or even most residents take a tolerant attitude towards marijuana, but federal dollars force local law enforcement to focus on it.
To make sure Shasta County gets the federal grants, Sheriff Bosenko has spent about $340,000 of his department’s shrinking budget — more than in past years — on a team whose sole duty is to traipse through the woods looking for pot plants.
Though the squad is mostly federally funded, the grants don’t cover some basic needs and equipment — so the Sheriff has to pay for those out of his regular budget, to make the department eligible for the big bucks.
Other crimes — like robbery and driving while drunk — may have a much larger impact on local communities than pot growing, the Sheriff admits. But those infractions don’t have fat federal grants attached to them. Marijuana does.
According to the sheriff, the anti-pot money is “$340,000 I could use somewhere else in my organization. That could fund three officers’ salaries and benefits, and we could have them out on our streets doing patrol,” Bosenko said.
“These so-called ‘eradication’ efforts have had zero effect on marijuana use, availability, or price, but once again, California law enforcement agencies are perfectly content to throw more tax money down the CAMP rabbit hole,” said Aaron Smith, California policy director for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP).
In addition to the $3.6 billion being spent by the U.S. Justice Department this year, augmenting budgets of state and local law enforcement, the federal government set aside last year almost $4 billion in additional economic stimulus package funds.
The White House is also spending about $239 million in 2010 to fund local “drug trafficking task forces” — which, in the real world, usually means local cops dressing up like Rambo and tramping about in the woods in a wasteful, quixotic and doomed attempt to stop the burgeoning marijuana industry.
“It’s time to stop this insanity of repeating the futile exercise of CAMP and instead replace marijuana prohibition with a system of taxation and regulation,” Smith said. “Only then will we be able to eliminate the clandestine marijuana plantations — just as the repeal of alcohol prohibition did away with the bootleggers of that era.”
“It’s no coincidence that drug cartels don’t plant vineyards or hops fields in our national forests,” Smith added.
About the author: Steve Elliott, a working journalist since 1982, is editor of Toke of the Town, Village Voice Media’s site covering cannabis news, views, rumor and humor.