A recent 440-page report compiled by top academics confirmed that cannabis has medical benefits and asserted that government restrictions on cannabis research constitute a “public health problem.” Nevertheless, the federal government’s official and legal stance are that the plant has no medical value. Why such resistance to one of the world’s oldest therapeutic plants? To quote Watergate’s infamous Deep Throat, “Follow the money.”
In early February, President Trump met with several sheriffs at the White House, and one of them said, “Mr. President, on asset forfeiture, we got a state senator in Texas who was talking about introducing legislation to require conviction before we can receive their forfeiture.”
“Can you believe that?” said President Trump.
“And I told him that the cartel would build a monument to him in Mexico if he could get that legislation,” Eavenson replied.
“Who is the state senator? Want to give his name? We’ll destroy his career,” Trump responded, hopefully in jest, but you never know.
This exchange prompted Pennsylvania state senator Daylin Leach to tweet, “Hey @realDonaldTrump I oppose civil asset forfeiture too! Why don’t you try to destroy my career you fascist, loofa-faced, shit-gibbon!” Senator Leach’s tweet has since been retweeted 15,000 times.
The press had fun with the “destroy his career” and “loofa-faced shit-gibbon” remarks, but lost in the larger narrative is the issue itself, asset forfeiture, a law most people don’t realize exists. In fact, a full transcript of the conversation above showed that Trump did not know about it either. Acting Attorney General Dana Boente explained the “very successful program” to Trump as “taking narcotics proceeds and other proceeds of crime” and giving it to law enforcement, which prompted the President to double-down on his support for asset forfeiture.
So, what exactly is this program? Civil asset forfeiture allows law enforcement to seize possessions without charging—let alone convicting—a person of a crime. When it comes to asset seizures, a person is guilty until proven innocent, and property owners are not guaranteed a right to an attorney, forcing them into expensive legal battles to have any hope of reclaiming their assets. The law was meant to empower law enforcement to freeze the assets of drug cartels, but today it’s commonly used against everyday people who commit minor drug crimes so law enforcement can pad its budget. The media calls it “policing for profit.”
Here are a few examples of asset forfeiture in action. In 2014, a 22-year-old named Yianni in Pennsylvania got busted for $40 worth of drugs. The parents had nothing to do with the drug crime, but since it happened in their home, law enforcement used the civil forfeiture law to seize the house. The same-day eviction forced the entire family out onto the street immediately. Per CNN that year, law enforcement took the homes or cars of approximately 500 families in Philadelphia in the previous two years, netting about $6 million a year in seized assets.
Also in 2014, Michigan resident Ginnifer Hency had assets seized for growing and using medical cannabis in accordance with state law. Hency, a soccer mom with multiple sclerosis (i.e., not a drug cartel leader), started taking medical cannabis on the recommendation of her neurologist, and she became a state-registered caregiver licensed to grow for a small handful of designated patients. Like a scene out of Scarface, armed and masked Drug Task Force officers breached the house door with Hency and her four children, all under the age of 10, inside. The officers then treated her home like a Walmart on Black Friday.
Per The Washington Post, the officers loaded up like bandits taking their vehicles, the lawnmower and even a public assistance card to help feed the family. One officer even took $90 in birthday money and a Hello Kitty wallet from their nine-year-old daughter. According to testimony before the Michigan House Judiciary Committee, Hency said the officers also took her vibrator and hung her lingerie from the ceiling fans, but they did not take the cannabis-grow equipment. After a judge dismissed the charges, law enforcement still refused to return her possessions saying it did not need to under civil forfeiture laws. A media and legal battle ensued that ultimately forced the officers to return her possessions in late 2015. That same year, the Detroit Free Press said the police seized more than $24 million in assets from Michigan residents in 2013.
In 2014, the New York Times reported that police departments give seminars on asset forfeiture encouraging officers to go after cars, cash and flat-screen televisions. The paper even caught a New Mexico city attorney on tape calling it a “gold mine.” While it is difficult to put a national figure on total seizures from local and state law enforcement, the NYT wrote that the federal program went from taking $407 million in 2001 to $4.3 billion 2012. Law enforcement gets to keep most of the money and assets.
What does all this have to do with health? Simply put, the same law enforcement that profits from cannabis-related asset seizures is the same law enforcement that determines whether or not cannabis has legally recognized medical value. What, you thought the health department was in charge of that? The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) ultimately decides how to schedule cannabis, per the Controlled Substances Act, and it refuses to move cannabis out from the most restricted schedule reserved for the most extreme drugs with absolutely no medical applications.
The Schedule I status of cannabis creates at least three major issues: 1) medical doctors cannot prescribe it; 2) legal approval for medical research is extremely difficult; and 3) most banks won’t work with a cannabis company even when state legal. This means companies working with a state-legal, federally illegal substance like cannabis must deal almost exclusively in cash and, well, you probably see where this is headed. Cars and flat-screen TVs are nice, but there’s nothing like cold hard cash. Cannabis is up there with gambling as the biggest cash businesses, and law enforcement would lose a huge cash cow with something as simple as moving cannabis to Schedule III alongside ketamine and steroids. Keep in mind, a town in Idaho with only 10,000 residents doesn’t have enough budget on its own to buy a giant armored tank to battle cannabis. Not a joke.
People say politicians should not stand between them and their doctors, but law enforcement should not stand between the doctor-patient relationship either. Federal health and addiction agencies cite studies that suggest cannabis can help kill certain kinds of cancer, a word that produces pure dread in middle aged and elderly Americans. Studies also suggest cannabis can help treat chronic pain, chemotherapy-related nausea, pediatric epilepsy and several other disorders. Putting cannabis under the purview of health agencies would likely open the door to more robust studies that help refine medical use and improve its efficacy. Instead, cannabis primarily falls under the purview of law enforcement, the same group that wants to maintain both civil asset forfeiture and cannabis prohibition. Certainly this is not the mainstream view since 89 percent of Americans support medical cannabis, 60 percent support recreational cannabis, 76 percent of doctors support medical cannabis and (get ready for a shocker) 68 percent of police officers support medical cannabis. A third of the police officers even support legalizing recreational use, though the brass in charge of budgetary concerns probably doesn’t make up much of that percentage.
Would you want a police officer to operate on your cancer? Then why should law enforcement have the power to prohibit doctors from treating cancer patients with cannabis or to seize the possessions of MS patients like Ginnifer Hency for utilizing cannabis based on a doctor’s recommendation? The former DEA chief called medical cannabis a joke, and if it is, more research will prove that out. However, if the vast majority of medical doctors and researchers are right about the value of medical cannabis, the findings could potentially be used to treat some of the world’s most horrible disorders and diseases.
When it comes to medical cannabis, it is time for the separation of health and state.
Image: Helen Penjam, CC-BY