The Long Reach of Asset Forfeiture

One of the most troubling examples of drug war tactics related to the militarization of the police is asset forfeiture. Frequently in the course of drug investigations, large amounts of money and property will be seized by law enforcement under the assumption that it represents profit from drugs sales. In many cases, police departments or federal law enforcement are able to keep this property even if no charges were ever filed, or if the rightful owner is found innocent of charges. More and more, it seems as if asset forfeiture is becoming a motivating factor in decisions about which suspects to target and when.

Marijuana dispensaries have become an easy target for agencies eager to boost their budgets and increase their chances of receiving federal Byrne grants, which are given out based on resources spent on drug enforcement and assets seized. Far too often in recent years, state-legal medical marijuana dispensaries have seen their locations raided by heavily armed agents who take anything of value (cash, computers, marijuana, confidential patient information), harass patients, and destroy anything they cannot take with them, yet do not file charges or find any evidence of state law violations. Such smash-and-grab tactics are a direct threat to property rights and due process and have done much to erode respect for the rule of law. In addition, the proceeds of asset forfeiture provide incentives for law enforcement to actively work against marijuana policy reform, as, in their perception, it directly threatens their budgets.

Also from this issue


  • Paul Armentano begins our roundtable discussion with a review of the burgeoning literature on the safety of recreational cannabis and the unique effectiveness of cannabis for many medical purposes. Recent years have seen an outpouring of this type of research, which stands in stark contrast to the political consensus in Washington, which still favors criminalization.

  • Norm Stamper argues that when people see the true face of the War on Drugs, they are justifiably outraged. The average citizen can now take videos almost anywhere and then publicize what they’ve recorded. The result? YouTube clips of military-style police raids, in which the violence meted out seems vastly disproportionate to any possible wrongdoing by the suspects. Police have an important job to do in our society. They need the public’s respect if they’re going to succeed, and the War on Drugs is getting in the way.

  • Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of NORML, surveys the political landscape of cannabis Prohibition. He finds significant disparity between public opinion and federal policy; even so, state policies have been much more susceptible to change. Among many other suggestions, he urges advocates to confront the “fear factor” surrounding cannabis, to win more diverse political allies, and to be more open about being “pot tolerant.”

  • Morgan Fox argues that marijuana both can and should be integrated into the American economy and American civil society. He notes that while taxation and regulation of marijuana may be causes for concern among some growers and users, the “regulation” we have now is undoubtedly worse, because it means only criminals are allowed to grow the nation’s largest cash crop. With public support for legalization at 50%, he nonetheless acknowledges that politicians have been slow to adopt the issue, and federal Prohibition is still likely to last for quite some time.