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WHEN POLICY GOES TO POT: Its time to change Colorados strategy in the war on drugs

Opinion Editorial
October 19, 2005

By Mike Krause

If President Bush gets his 2006 national drug control budget, Colorado will lose millions of dollars in federal funding for local drug enforcement. But rather than a crisis, the loss of federal drug war dollars would be a unique opportunity for Colorado to gets its own statewide drug control priorities in order.

In 2004, eighteen different multi-jurisdictional drug and gang task forces in Colorado divided up just under $3 million federal tax dollars through the Edward Byrne Memorial State and Local Law Enforcement Assistance Program (or simply, Byrne grants). This federal money was matched, on a formula basis, by $4 million in local funding.

The 2006 Bush budget would eliminate the Byrne grants. Congress had been on track to defy President Bush and re-fund the grants at some level, but the consensus in Washington D.C. is, that the Byrne grants will eventually either disappear or be whittled down to irrelevancy.

A 2004 threat assessment by the federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program (HIDTA) states Methamphetamine continues to pose the greatest threat in Rocky Mountain HIDTAs four-state region, which includes Colorado.

According to the 2004 Byrne grant report for Colorado, The proliferation of [methamphetamine] labs in Colorado provided the greatest amount of drug enforcement activity for nearly every task force.

Yet a close look at the data shows that all of the federally funded task forces engage in marijuana enforcement at some level, and three of these task forcesBoulder County, Summit County and GRAMNET (Grand, Routt and Moffat counties)all actually made more arrests for marijuana than any other illicit drug, including methamphetamine.

Two other task forces, in San Luis and Eagle counties, made most of their arrests for other drugs, but still managed to do more marijuana enforcement than for methamphetamine.

The U.S. Department of Justice notes in its own drug threat assessment for Colorado, that local law enforcement generally regards the drug [marijuana] as a lower threat than methamphetamine or cocaine because marijuana abusers and distributors usually do not commit violent crimes.

So if methamphetamine is the greatest threat and marijuana a lower threat, why are so many scarce drug enforcement resources being wasted on marijuana?

This is partly explained by contradictory priorities at the national and local level.

In 2005, the National Association of Counties (NACO) surveyed 500 county law enforcement agencies, including nineteen in Colorado, and concluded that America is in the midst of a methamphetamine epidemic. Fifty-eight percent of counties identified methamphetamine as their single largest drug problem, including methamphetamine related crimes such as robberies and burglaries, domestic violence, simple assault and identity theft.

Yet some federal drug warriors take a more sober view. Scott Burns, Deputy Director of the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) recently contradicted the epidemic rhetoric, telling a Congressional sub-committee that Americas estimated 1.5 million methamphetamine users make up only 8% of the countrys estimated 19 million drug users.

The federal Drug Enforcement Administrations 2005 state fact sheet for Colorado notes Clandestine [methamphetamine] laboratories are problematic to law enforcement in Colorado, due more to the public safety and environmental issues they present, than the volume of methamphetamine they produce. DEA continues, Most of the methamphetamine available in Colorado originates in Mexico or comes from large-scale laboratories in California.

So while local methamphetamine production and use has proved hugely problematic to local police agencies, the main concern of the federal governmentand properly sois the interstate and international trafficking of the drug.

But what about marijuana?

According to recently released FBI data, marijuana arrests nationwide set a new record in 2004, totaling 771,605. Eighty-nine percent of these arrests were for marijuana possession, not sale or manufacture.

A study by the Washington D.C. based Sentencing Project show that annual drug arrests nationwide increased by 450,000 from 1990 to 2002. Marijuana arrests accounted for 82 percent of that growth and 79 percent of that was for marijuana possession alone.

In other words the domestic drug war is primarily a war against marijuana. So federal tax-dollars being wasted on marijuana enforcement in Colorado is fine from a federal perspective.

The drug war as actually fought by the federal government is partly a war against the rights of people to control their own state and local governments. As a sign of good faith, the legislature should break ranks with the federal government and end the irrational war on marijuana in Colorado.

If federal funding ends, so too should federal influence. The Colorado Legislature may need to take up a state-wide methamphetamine strategy funded by, and accountable to, Colorado taxpayers.

(This is an excerpt from Senior Fellow Mike Krauses upcoming Issue Paper).