DEA Finds Prohibition Increasingly Difficult to Enforce

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Marijuana laws are changing, and according to the DEA this has made “enforcement and prosecution of marijuana-related offenses more difficult, especially in states that have approved marijuana laws.”

The DEA has released their annual National Drug Threat Assessment, and the lead story that the agency is pushing is the alarming increase in the rate of fentanyl-related overdose deaths and the related nationwide opioid epidemic. Other publicized findings include increases in the availability and use of methamphetamine and cocaine.

However, given the sweeping nature of marijuana law legalization and reform across the nation, it is the DEA’s assessment of marijuana that remains one of the most interesting aspects of this report.

“It is too early,” the DEA proclaims, “to assess the full impact of state approval of personal use and medical use of marijuana.”

Ever mindful of federal law, the DEA footnotes the use of the term “medical marijuana” to indicate that this refers to state-approved use, adding that under federal law, marijuana has “no accepted medical use in the United States.”

Overall, though, the DEA argues that state reforms have resulted in increased use, production increases, better quality cannabis, more seizures of concentrates, more extraction labs and—most important—“declines in the overall weight of Mexico-sourced marijuana seized” at the Southwest border.

The DEA surveys police agencies around the country, and 34 percent indicate that marijuana’s availability has increased in the past year. But 4.9 percent of the responding agencies list marijuana as their greatest drug threat.

The DEA notes that states started to decriminalize marijuana in 1973 and that currently 20 states and Washington, D.C. have decriminalized marijuana (meaning there is only a minor penalty or fine for possession of small amounts). The DEA also summarizes the adoption of medical, recreational, CBD and industrial hemp laws by various states. What they do not comment on is the meaning of the widespread embrace of marijuana reform laws or that states are opting out of the federally recommended policy at an increasingly profound rate.

The average THC potency in marijuana analyzed at the University of Mississippi Potency Monitoring Program for the DEA has risen from 3.96 percent in 1995 to 12.18 percent in 2014, with the average potency of marijuana concentrates up to 51.59 percent.

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), monthly marijuana use has increased from 2006 to 2014 in Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia.  In all of these legal jurisdictions, monthly marijuana use exceeded 11.8 percent in 2014, with national use at about 8 percent of the population.

However, the Monitoring the Future Survey reports little change in annual marijuana use among 8th, 10th and 12th grade students from 2001 to the present. Perception of marijuana use being harmful has fallen among 12th grade students over the last 10 years. Furthermore, admissions of both adults and teens to drug treatment programs for marijuana abuse has also declined since 2009.

Referring to a RAND Corporation study contracted by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the DEA reports that the United States is consuming between 8.8 and 18.7 million pounds of marijuana annually.

In a policy shift from prior decades, the DEA now reports: “There is no scientifically approved and consistent method for determining the yield of a cannabis plant.”

This is significant because the DEA has maintained in the past that a marijuana plant produces a yield of one pound, and this has been used by prosecutors to inflate the prospective yields of personal marijuana cultivation in order to secure felony convictions on charges of manufacturing with the intent to distribute.

Another notable reference in the report is that the DEA is now relying on marijuana industry estimates to describe the size of the legal market—passing on ArcView’s estimates that state-approved marijuana sales totaled $5.4 billion in 2015.

The DEA is concerned about indoor cultivation, noting that it “is more difficult for law enforcement to discover and has the advantage of not having to rely on climate conditions or growing seasons.”

They also report: “Electricity and water consumption are increasing in some localities due to increasing domestic cultivation from both state-approved and illicit grows” and that energy consumption for indoor cultivation is around 1 percent of national electricity use, at a cost $6 billion per year. The DEA also highlights the environmental costs of pesticide use in marijuana cultivation.

New areas of concern for the DEA include the use of state legalization laws as cover for cultivating marijuana for sale in other states and the manufacture of marijuana concentrate (along with related safety concerns).

The important trend reflected in this threat assessment is that the DEA is closely following marijuana legalization and emphasizing any and all statistics that allow them to argue that legalization is a costly policy.

The DEA concludes that:

“Domestic use of marijuana will remain high and is likely to increase. Domestic production and trafficking of marijuana will likely increase as more states adopt relaxed marijuana laws. Individuals and criminal organizations will exploit state-legality in these localities to produce and traffic their product to the illicit market, particularly to states without state-approved marijuana.”

The DEA views the current legal environment as “fragmented,” and continuing changes in state laws “will continue to create uncertainty and increasingly complex issues for the public, law enforcement, banking systems, and medical professionals.”

Their final conclusion supplies a back-handed complement to the reform movement:

“Marijuana will remain a part of domestic and international political discussions for the foreseeable future.”


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