The Drug Warriors Cashing In on Pot Prohibition - Page 2

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 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.

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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.