war on drugs

Loretta Lynch Confirmed as Attorney General

After one of the longest confirmation processes in the history of the Attorney General’s office, Loretta Lynch was confirmed by the Senate today as Eric Holder’s successor.

From a criminal justice perspective, whether Lynch will embrace or abandon Holder’s position on state-level drug legalization and his announced commitment to reforming civil asset forfeiture are two questions that spring immediately to mind.

Loretta Lynch zealously defended civil asset forfeiture during her confirmation hearings, and was a devoted practitioner of it as a U.S. Attorney in New York.  One of her seizure cases, that of the Hirsch brothers [$], garnered widespread attention and condemnation, and helped spur the nationwide calls for reform to which Eric Holder responded.

DEA ‘Cold Consent’ Encounters Constitute Federal Stop-and-Frisk

Over at Forbes, the Institute for Justice’s Nick Sibilla details a new report from the Department of Justice concerning the Drug Enforcement Administration’s practice of cold-stopping travelers at airports, bus stations, and train stations and asking to search their property looking for forfeitable assets.

Federal drug agents may be racially profiling and unjustly seizing cash from travelers in the nation’s airports, bus stations and train stations. A new report released by the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Justice examined the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)’s controversial use of “cold consent.

In a cold consent encounter, a person is stopped if an agent thinks that person’s behavior fits a drug courier profile. Or an agent can stop a person cold “based on no particular behavior,” according to the Inspector General report. The agent then asks the people they have stopped for consent to question them and sometimes to search their possessions as well. By gaining consent, law enforcement officers can bypass the need for a warrant.

While many people who believe they have nothing to hide may–inadvisably–consent to a police search, they may not be familiar with federal civil asset forfeiture laws, which give federal agents wide latitude to seize property, especially cash, without charging anyone with any crime. Sibilla notes that the DEA agents even go so far as to carry affidavits for search targets to sign disclaiming any rights to the property being seized. 

Disturbingly, the Inspector General found that DEA interdiction task force groups have been seizing cash from travelers and then urging them to sign forms disclaiming their own cash and “waiving their rights.” In one cold consent encounter, DEA agents stopped another African-American woman in part because she was “pacing nervously” before boarding her flight. After gaining her consent, the agents searched her luggage and found $8,000.

Quiet Change Expands ATF Power to Seize Property

A quick glance at the Federal Register (Vol. 80, No. 37, p. 9987-88) today reveals that Attorney General Eric Holder, who earned cautious praise last month for a small reform to the federal equitable sharing program, has now delegated authority to the Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) to seize and “administratively forfeit” property involved in suspected drug offenses.  Holder temporarily delegated this authority to the ATF on a trial basis in 2013, and today made the delegation permanent while lauding the ATF for seizing more than $19.3 million from Americans during the trial period.

Historically, when the ATF uncovered contraband subject to forfeiture under drug statutes, it was required to either refer the property to the DEA for administrative forfeiture proceedings or to a U.S. Attorney in order to initiate a judicial forfeiture action.  Under today’s change, the ATF will now be authorized to seize property related to alleged drug offenses and initiate administrative forfeiture proceedings all on its own.

The DOJ claims this rule change doesn’t affect individual rights (and was thus exempt from the notice and comment requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act) and that the change is simply an effort to streamline the federal government’s forfeiture process.  Those who now stand more likely to have their property taken without even a criminal charge may beg to differ.

Further, the department claims that forcing the ATF to go through a judicial process in order to seize property requires too much time and money.  Whereas an “uncontested administrative forfeiture can be perfected in 60-90 days for minimal cost […] the costs associated with judicial forfeiture can amount to hundreds or thousands of dollars and the judicial process generally can take anywhere from 6 months to years.”  In other words, affording judicial process to Americans suspected of engaging in criminal activity takes too long and costs too much. 

What Should Republicans Do?

Having taken both houses of Congress, Republicans are eager to make changes. Here are some guidelines they should follow: 1. Learn from history. At least since the Clinton administration, this country has suffered from a consistent pattern: First, one party takes the White House and Congress. Thrilled with the taste of power, they overreach, provoking a backlash. This allows the other party to soon take control of at least one house of Congress, leading to gridlock for the next several years. Republicans can avoid this scenario. Instead of immediately trying to pass legislation that will please certain of their constituents, Republicans should propose changes that will build strategic alliances with a wide range of groups. That may mean an incremental approach to change, but each increment should be designed to make the next increment more—not less—politically feasible. 2. Focus on fiscal issues. Part of the historic pattern is that Democrats win on social issues while Republicans win on fiscal issues. Whichever party is in power usually shoots itself in the foot by giving the other party ammunition on its winning issues. For example, Democrats’ obsession with government-run health insurance turned a social issue—poor people’s access to health care—into a fiscal issue. Republicans’ obsessions with abortion and gay rights give Democrats tools to bring them down. Since tax and fiscal issues are what Republicans win on, they should stick to those issues. That means no introducing bills to limit third-trimester abortions, no proposals for constitutional amendments to declare that marriage is between a man and a woman, and no efforts to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling. Any of those efforts would give fiscal liberals the openings they need to retake at least one house of Congress in 2018 (if not 2016), thus restoring gridlock. 3. Fix incentives, not outcomes. Nearly all of the problems with the federal government are due to poor incentives. It is incentives that determine what agencies do and whether they will be efficient doing it. In the long run, if the incentives are right, everything else will take care of itself (including a reduction in the size of government). Unfortunately, members of Congress almost never think about incentives when they pass legislation—or when they do, they think about them the wrong way, as in “How can I create an incentive to produce the outcome I want?” Instead of worrying about outcomes, Congress should create a level playing field, with a minimal amount of regulation and subsidies.

More Evidence of Drug War Failures

In an article over at CNN.com, I discuss a new study that confirms that the war on drugs is an expensive failure. That report from BMJ Open, an affiliate of the British Medical Journal, reaches the damning conclusion, supported by compelling evidence, that drug warriors have consistently failed to achieve their stated objectives.

Among other findings, the report documents that inflation-adjusted and purity-adjusted prices of marijuana, cocaine, and heroin have all decreased dramatically since 1990. That was true in such geographically distinct areas as Europe, the United States, and Australia. In other words, illegal drugs are plentiful and cheap around the world, and there is no indication that the trend is likely to change. The authors state that despite “increasing investments in enforcement-based supply reduction efforts aimed at disrupting global drug supply, illegal drug prices have generally decreased while drug purity has generally increased.” 

None of this comes as a surprise to the swelling ranks of critics of the international drug prohibition policy. Drug abuse is certainly a major public health problem, and its societal costs are considerable. But banning the drug trade creates ugly social and economic distortions.  Because certain drugs are illegal, there is an enormous black-market premium (by most estimates, up to 90 percent of the retail price) associated with them.  That lucrative lure attracts the most corrupt, violent individuals and organizations. 

A Look at the OAS Report on Drug Policy in the Americas

Last Friday, the Organization of American States released a groundbreaking report on the future of drug policy in the Americas. The OAS received the mandate to produce this document at the Summit of the Americas last year in Cartagena, Colombia, where some presidents aired their frustration with the war on drugs and even suggested legalization as an alternative to fight the cartels.  

The document is based on solid premises:

  1. Drug violence is one of the greatest challenges facing the Americas
  2. The current approach is a failure isn’t working
  3. New policy alternatives need to be discussed and implemented
  4. Drug use will remain significant by 2025

These premises might seem pretty obvious, but when it comes to drug policy, stating the obvious hasn’t been the norm for those who believe in the status quo: for example, in 1988 the UN held an event titled “A drug-free world: we can do it” (consumption of marijuana and cocaine has increased by 50 percent since then). Or the latest National Drug Control Strategy, which claims that the greatest accomplishment of the Mérida Initiative with Mexico has been “the mutual fostering of security, protection and prosperity” (never mind the 60,000 people killed in drug violence in six years in Mexico).

The OAS report avoids recounting this fairy tale. It also avoids making recommendations, given the lack of consensus among its authors about where drug policy should be headed in the next 12 years. Instead, the document lays out four different interpretations of the “drug problem” and presents the scenarios of what the response should be. The report also presents the challenges facing each scenario (name in bold):

Together: Under this scenario, the problem is not drug laws but weak institutions. It foresees greater security and intelligence cooperation among nations, more expenditure in the security and judiciary apparatuses and tougher laws dealing with corruption, gun trafficking and money laundering.

Latin American countries indeed suffer from weak institutions. The shortcoming of this scenario is that prohibition actually exacerbates the problem since it inflates the profit margins of the cartels to stratospheric levels, thus increasing their corrupting and violent power. In 2010 all seven Central American countries combined spent nearly $4 billion in their security and judiciary apparatuses (a 60 percent increase in five years). And yet that fell terribly short of the estimated revenues of the Mexican and Colombian cartels which, according to a report from the Justice Department, could reach up to $39 billion a year.

The report foresees another challenge with this approach: a disparity among countries in their institution-building efforts, which would lead to the balloon effect of criminal activities. This is perhaps the main feature of the drug business in the Americas: its high capacity to adapt to changing circumstances. For example, in the early 1990s, as pressure grew on coca growers in Peru they moved to Colombia. Now, after a decade of eradication programs in that nation, they are moving back to Peru. Overall the Andean region continues to produce the same amount of cocaine as it did 20 years ago.

Over the years the common denominator of the war on drugs in Latin America has been the attempt to export the problem to your neighbor. Greater cooperation, harmonization of efforts, and same-pace institution building seems unrealistic.

Subscribe to RSS - war on drugs