The Drug Warriors Cashing In on Pot Prohibition

By Kevin Gray 03/21/13

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.

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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.

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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. You can find him on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.