The Drug Warriors Cashing In on Pot Prohibition
Former public servants, from DEA chiefs to cops, are using their clout to lobby for drug policies that enrich themselves—before it's too late.
When eight former DEA chiefs signed a letter to US Attorney General Eric Holder earlier this month, demanding that the feds crack down on Washington and Colorado, the states which voted last November to legalize marijuana, there was more than just drug-war ideology at stake. There was money.
Two of the elder drug warriors, Peter Bensinger (DEA chief, 1976–1981) and Robert DuPont (White House drug chief, 1973–1977), run a corporate drug-testing business. Their employee-assistance company, Bensinger, DuPont & Associates, the sixth largest in the nation, holds the pee stick for some 10 million employees around the US. Their clients have included the biggest players in industry and government: Kraft Foods, American Airlines, Johnson & Johnson, the Federal Aviation Administration and even the Justice Department itself.
“These are not just old drug war architects pushing a drug war model they’ve pushed for 40 years,” says Brian Vicente, a Denver lawyer and co-author of Colorado’s Proposition 64, which legalized marijuana for recreational use. “These guys are asking Eric Holder to pursue prohibition policies that line their own pockets.”
Bensinger and DuPont both deny money is their motive. “It’s true we might benefit from keeping marijuana illegal,” says DuPont. But he argues it's equally true that marijuana legalization could benefit his bottom line, putting forth the old drug-war line that legalization would create more users. “The more success legalization has, the better it is for our business because they are creating a problem for employers,” he says. “That would be smart for us.” DuPont also points out that only 15% of their business is made up of training employers to detect the warning signs of drug and alcohol abuse and supplying third-party testing. But both men are involved in industry-controlled lobbying groups like the Drug & Alcohol Industry Testing Association, which backed the Drug Testing Integrity Act of 2008, outlawing products that help people beat drug tests and keeping their business healthy.
By inserting themselves into the legal-pot debate, Bensinger, DuPont and other drug warriors benefit by promoting their own legacies and bolstering their own business, lobbying and consulting interests—even in the face of an increasingly skeptical public. A 2011 Gallup survey showed that half of Americans favor legalizing weed. “This letter that they signed is their attempt to once again become relevant within the public policy debate that has largely turned its back on such archaic viewpoints,” says Paul Armentano, deputy director of the pro-marijuana nonprofit, National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
“These guys are asking Eric Holder to pursue prohibition policies that line their own pockets,” says Brian Vicente.
The time-honored revolving door between government and business swings fast and often. It can be straightforward, like the appointment of banking behemoth Goldman Sachs' alumni as economic policymakers by recent presidential administrations. But when it comes to the drug war, the family tree is more like a thicket of interests among law enforcement, federal and state prisons, pharmaceutical giants, drug testers and drug treatment programs—all with an economic stake in keeping pot illegal.
Bensinger and DuPont are longtime allies of the marijuana prohibition group that sent the letter to Holder, Save Our Society from Drugs (SOS), which was founded by Mel Sembler, a Florida shopping-mall magnate, and his wife, Betty. The Semblers also founded Straight Inc.—a drug-treatment program that used sleep deprivation, beatings and psychological abuse to treat 10,000 teenage patients, in nine states, from 1976 to 1993, at $1,400 a month plus a $1,600 per patient evaluation fee, raking in millions. Straight was shut down after investigations in state after state corroborated the hundreds of complaints. But the Semblers, longtime major Republican Party fundraisers, retain their influence as behind-the-scenes bankrollers of the anti-drug faction.
The department of the White House drug czar, otherwise known as the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), is another arm of the government’s war on drugs that can be lucrative to incumbents. Andrea Barthwell, MD, former deputy drug czar during President George W. Bush’s first term and his point person against medical marijuana, has earned a living both treating drug addicts and lobbying against policies that weaken marijuana laws—and cut into her own bottom line.
As a past president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM)—a group that opposes medical marijuana, and whose members’ business model could be threatened by legalized marijuana, since two-thirds of its clientele are court-ordered pot users trying to avoid jail time—Barthwell has been one of its fiercest attack dogs. In ASAM campaigns against Oregon and Illinois’ medical marijuana initiatives, she called those who favor medical marijuana “cruel” and “snake oil salesman.” She denounces this pain-relief and anti-nausea approach for patients with cancer and AIDS because, she claims, it is unregulated and unproven (the Institute of Medicine declared medical marijuana useful in 2003, and since then many studies, and many more users, attest to its benefits.)
Yet Barthwell was happy to jump from the ONDCP to the payroll of GW Pharmaceutical in 2005, lobbying for the Canadian company’s Sativex—a liquefied marijuana spray, extracted from whole plant cannabis, for the same pain benefits. Even as the American Medical Association and federal lawmakers maintain that pot has no medicinal value, Big Pharma is applying for dozens of cannabis-based new medicines in order to take hold of of the $1.8 billion medical marijuana industry, as NORML’s Paul Armentano pointed out five years ago in the Huffington Post.
Barthwell, like Bensinger and DuPoint, also has a financial stake in the prohibition treatment culture. She is founder and CEO of EMGlobal LLC, parent company of the Chicago-based Two Dreams Outer Banks drug treatment center, and is also a director of Catasys Inc., which provides substance abuse programs and behavioral health management services to companies, health plans and unions—a role for which she received $77,994 in compensation in 2011.
When it comes to the drug war, money rolls into whichever corporate pockets are willing to play ball, whether it’s big-time lobbyists or broadcast TV networks. Barry McCaffrey—President Clinton’s second-term drug czar and a former Army general, who also signed the recent letter to Holder—was in charge of the purse strings at ONDCP. He oversaw a money-soaked, ham-handed propaganda campaign: In 1999, his office hired PR giant Fleishman-Hillard (at $10 million a year), which encouraged TV networks to slip anti-drug messages into sitcoms and dramas in exchange for ad time worth millions. The secret effort allowed networks to avoid running PSAs, freeing up airtime for paid ads. Networks also gave the ONCDP advance copies of scripts to review. It’s estimated that between 1998 and 2000, the networks received up to $25 million in benefits.
At the same time, McCaffrey was sharpening his stick for the battle against medical marijuana, flatly denying that patients in pain could receive relief from pot. After he left the drug czar’s job, he went on the payroll of military contractors, promoting their interests in the Iraq war as a frequent talking head on national network TV, never disclosing his financial ties.
Lobbying your former employer—whether it’s the government itself or taxpayers who foot the bill—is the No. 1 way one-time public servants can serve themselves. The same is true of current state-paid employees, like cops and other law enforcement personnel whose job it is to crack down on illegal weed smoking. As Armentano notes, federal grants that target illegal drug use are a major source of funding for local police coffers, paying for new hires, equipment and coveted overtime pay.
John Lovell, a lobbyist for police associations in Sacramento, California, not only obtains those grants, he is a front-line fighter on behalf of the cops to keep pot illegal. When California weighed Proposition 19 to legalize marijuana in 2010, Lovell helped manage the opposition campaign. During the fight, according to a review of lobbying contracts by Republic Report, Lovell’s company received $386,350 from police groups, including the California Police Chiefs Association. The same report noted that Lovell helped local police departments apply for drug war money from President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. In 2009 and 2010, state police groups sought some $75 million from the feds to conduct a Campaign Against Marijuana Planting. Lovell represented one such group.
The tangled money trail can seem at times like something from a smoke-filled Cheech and Chong plot.
Indeed, law enforcement agencies around the country could lose as much as $11 billion in taxpayer money if marijuana prohibition is repealed, according to Harvard economics professor Jeff Myron. Weed arrests account for half of all drugs arrests in the US. The tangled money trail can seem at times like something from a smoke-filled Cheech and Chong plot.
In 2009, the California Police Chiefs Association posted on their website a position paper against pot for pain, courtesy of a group called Friends of the DEA. “Requiring the DEA unequivocally to take a ‘hands-off’ approach, no matter how egregious the dispensary’s practices, will not serve the best interests of patients. Uncontrolled proliferation of dispensaries will seriously undercut our FDA drug approval system and deprive patients of important regulatory protections,” the group argued. What the paper didn’t note was that Friends was a lobbying group headed by Michael Barnes, a former Bush appointee to the drug czar’s office, as first pointed out by CounterPunch that year. The nine-page, heavily footnoted position paper was written by none other than Andrea Barthwell, MD, the promoter of Sativex, which is likely to receive FDA approval soon.
Among the biggest financial winners from the war on pot are private prisons and the army of DEA agents, local deputies and SWAT teams who help fill them up. Since 1980, federal prisons have ballooned some 790% because of the war on drugs, which began in earnest the previous decade. Private prison companies have seen their business soar. Corrections Corporation of America (CAA), the largest operator in the US, with 60 facilities and a 90,000-bed capacity, had $1.7 billion in tax-payer-funded revenue last year. The GEO Group, a worldwide player with 53,000 beds, pulled in $1.6 billion in government-funneled revenue.
In its 2010 annual report, CAA is fairly transparent about its stake in the anti-drug battle: “Any changes [in laws] with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.” Last year, both companies stuffed millions of dollars into the pockets of Washington lobbyists to pressure lawmakers to maintain the status quo, as revealed in an investigation by Laura Carlsen in March's Counter Punch magazine.
“My most powerful adversity is the police-prison industry,” says former cop–turned–drug policy specialist Howard Woolridge, who lobbies lawmakers for marijuana reform for Citizens Opposing Prohibition. “They can say, ‘If you don’t vote for more prohibition, we will tell people you are soft on drugs on and soft on crime.’ The Fraternal Order of Police is looking out for their 326,000 members’ paychecks. If they say you’re soft on crime, they can move upward of 2% of the electorate. In a close election, that’s victory and defeat.”
Vincente doesn’t doubt that the Bensingers, Bathwells and McCaffreys are fervent believers in their anti-pot mission, even as they earn their living on its front lines or flanks. The same people who wrote to Holder battled Vincente's initiative as well. “It’s what they do—they get together and sign letters,” he says. For the older fighters, says Paul Armentano of NORML, “Their motivation is the fact their failed polices have been proved wrong. All they have is the ability to try to intimidate a couple of high-ranking officials. Most of America has moved on.”
Attorney General Eric Holder may recognize this. He has told members of the Senate that the Obama administration is still formulating its policy toward the states that legalized pot. “We are considering what the federal response to those new statutes will be,” Holder said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing this week. “We will have the ability to announce what our policy will be relatively soon.” So far he has not answered the drug warriors' letter.
Kevin Gray is a New York-based journalist. He writes about business, crime, politics and celebrity. He has reported from the Congo, Libya, Lebanon, Colombia, China and throughout the US. His work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, New York, Details, People, Men’s Journal and the Washington Post.
- Eric Holder
- Peter Bensinger
- Robert DuPont
- Brien Vicente
- Drug & Alcohol Industry Testing Association
- Drug Testing Integrity Act of 2008
- Save Our Society from Drugs
- Mel Sembler
- Andrea Barthwell
- American Society of Addiction Medicine
- Paul Armentano
- GW Pharmaceutical
- Barry McCaffrey
- American Recovery and Reinvestment Act
- Campaign Against Marijuana Planting
- Friends of the DEA
- Corrections Corporation of America
- Kevin Gray