The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Feds Accused of Meddling to Prevent State Drug Law Reform

by Kari Lydersen

Amid accusations that the US Drug Enforcement Administration is covertly opposing a Colorado initiative to legalize marijuana, questions have arisen over federal policy toward state drug laws.

Sept. 11, 2006 – Critics are questioning the US Drug Enforcement Administration’s operations in Colorado, where they say the agency is overstepping its authority by actively campaigning against a ballot initiative that could legalize marijuana possession.

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A pro-legalization group that helped put the initiative on Colorado’s November ballot says the DEA is using taxpayer money in an attempt to influence laws, rather than enforce them. As evidence, Safer Alternative For Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER) points to an August 8 e-mail searching for a campaign director to spend $10,000 fighting the legalization initiative and listing a local DEA agent as the contact. The initiative, known as "Amendment 44," would allow anyone over the age of 20 to possess up to one ounce of marijuana.

Jeffrey Sweetin, who heads Denver’s DEA, says the affair is a misunderstanding. He told The NewStandard the e-mail was circulated by a private individual who listed agent Michael Moore’s name and contact information without notifying Moore.

According to Sweetin, the DEA was involved in an "informational" campaign called the Colorado Marijuana Information Committee, but the agency pulled out after the Committee became a political organization and started fundraising. Sweetin said a member of the Committee sent the e-mail after the DEA resigned as an official participant. He said the agency still provides research upon request to the Committee.

Critics say the DEA’s possible intervention in legislative issues is notable because the agency is charged with enforcing laws, not influencing their creation.

"The DEA does get money to educate the public," Sweetin said. "But is the DEA campaigning to battle this initiative? No."

Initial Colorado media reports about the e-mail described it as coming directly from Agent Moore, and local papers including the Denver Post, the Rocky Mountain News and the Aurora Sentinel published editorials criticizing the DEA’s alleged actions. Sweetin said the editorials were based on misinformation since, he says, the e-mail was sent by a "concerned citizen" and not by Moore.

"The person who wrote that e-mail was probably confused and thought the DEA was still involved in the Committee," Sweetin said.

A copy of the e-mail obtained by TNS showed Moore’s contact information but not the originating address of the e-mail. Boulder Daily Camera reporter Ryan Morgan, who broke the story, could not be reached for comment. Moore was also not available to comment.

Critics say the DEA’s possible intervention in legislative issues is notable because the agency is charged with enforcing laws, not influencing their creation.

"It’s clearly inappropriate for the executive branch of the federal government to be spending taxpayer dollars to oppose a statewide ballot initiative," said Steve Fox, executive director of SAFER. "The federal government shouldn’t be involved in statewide elections."

There is no evidence that the $10,000 advertised in the e-mail comes directly from the DEA budget, and Sweetin said it was donated by private individuals. But critics of the DEA noted the agency did commit staff time and resources to the organization running the campaign. There is no question the agency was involved in starting the Committee, which is now formally opposing Amendment 44.

Critics of the DEA noted the agency did commit staff time and resources to the organization running the campaign.

Sweetin said the DEA has not been campaigning against Amendment 44, but rather providing information to the public about what the agency sees as the dangers of marijuana. He says the informational campaign was launched to counter what he describes as a misleading ad campaign by SAFER in favor of the ballot initiative. SAFER’s campaign claims that legalization is a matter of making alcohol and marijuana regulation equitable.

Meanwhile, advocates for drug-policy reform say the federal government’s involvement in state debates over marijuana legalization is not limited to Colorado. They cite visits by the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy Director John Walters and his staff to various states considering medical marijuana or marijuana de-criminalization initiatives. In August, Walters spoke out in Nevada against a ballot initiative similar to Colorado’s, which would legalize, regulate and tax the possession of marijuana for adults 21 and older.

"[Federal Agencies] seem to have decided that it’s their job to make the laws, not only enforce the laws," said Bruce Mirken, spokesperson for the Marijuana Policy Project, a national organization that led the drive to collect 86,000 signatures to put the Nevada measure on the state ballot. "That’s not the way it should be in a democracy, they should be letting the public decide and enforcing what the voters choose."

Fox of SAFER thinks the situation in Colorado is particularly disturbing since it is the DEA – rather than the White House – that has been most vocal in the debate over the legalization initiative. He thinks that even what the DEA has termed "public education" goes beyond a pure law-enforcement approach.

"Typically, the [White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy] is a little more of an advocacy arm," he said. "I’m not defending them, but their mission is to fight drug abuse in this country, whereas the DEA is purely a law-enforcement arm, which is supposed to enforce the laws as they are, not advocate for laws to be stronger or weaker or with different priorities on different drugs."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


Kari Lydersen is a contributing journalist.

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