DEA spent $18M destroying marijuana plants last year

The Drug Enforcement Administration's controversial cannabis eradication program continued apace in
Marijuana grows at a legal collective in the hills near Clearlake Oaks, Calif., July 11, 2014.
Marijuana grows at a legal collective in the hills near Clearlake Oaks, Calif., July 11, 2014.

The Drug Enforcement Administration’s controversial cannabis eradication program continued apace in 2015, new numbers released by the administration show. In 2015, local, state and federal authorities uprooted roughly 4.1 million cultivated marijuana plants in all 50 states, down slightly from the haul of 4.3 million plants in 2014.

Federal spending on the program remained at $18 million, consistent with levels seen in previous years. That works out to a cost-per-plant of $4.42, up slightly from a cost of $4.20 per plant in 2014 (yes, really).

The DEA’s program provides funding to 128 state and local law enforcement agencies to aggressively search for, seize and destroy illegal marijuana grows across the country. Much of the money for the program comes from the Justice Department’s asset forfeiture fund, a controversial program in its own right. In many states, the eradication program money is used to fund aerial operations involving helicopters scouring the countryside for marijuana. Sometimes, overzealous or untrained officers seize perfectly legal plants, like okra, mistaking them for marijuana.

Last year, a group of lawmakers led by Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., tried to pass legislation to redirect marijuana eradication funds to perhaps more productive uses, such as domestic violence prevention programs. The effort was ultimately unsuccessful, and Lieu is dismayed to see the program continue. “Marijuana needs to be removed from Schedule I classification, and DEA should stop this wasteful program,” he said via email.

Indeed, eradication programs continued last year in states such as Washington and Oregon that have legalized marijuana for adult recreational use. While full state breakdowns aren’t yet available, a DEA spokesman said that just under 36,000 marijuana plants were destroyed in Washington last year at a cost to federal taxpayers of about $950,000, or roughly $26 per plant.

The DEA did note, however, that at least two states declined to accept federal eradication funds last year: Alaska and Colorado, where marijuana is now legal. Those states conducted their own enforcement efforts against illegal marijuana grows.

In many ways, the federal marijuana eradication program is a holdover from the earlier days of the drug war. Four states plus the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for adult use, several other states are hoping to do so this year, and a growing chorus of researchers, lawmakers, doctors and the general public is calling on the federal government to change course on marijuana policy.

“It makes zero sense for the federal government to continue to spend taxpayer dollars on cannabis eradication at a time when states across the country are looking to legalize marijuana,” Lieu said. “I will continue to fight against DEA’s Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program in Congress and work to redirect these funds to worthwhile programs.”

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