Marijuana is more available now than ever throughout the United States, but in every region of the country it ranks last when state and local law enforcement agencies assess the greatest drug threats, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s latest annual National Drug Threat Assessment (NDTA).
In 2014, methamphetamine was ranked the greatest threat, closely followed by heroin and trailed by controlled prescription drugs. In both 2013 and 2014, these three combined were ranked the greatest threat by over 80 percent of reporting law enforcement agencies; in both years marijuana placed at seven percent.
In the West Central United States, which includes marijuana legalization pioneer Colorado, methamphetamine was ranked the highest threat by 61 percent of reporting agencies, marijuana at four percent. In the Pacific region, including Washington state, the same pattern is present with meth at 67 percent and marijuana at nine percent.
However, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) review of marijuana-related trends focused on the agency’s concern about increases in marijuana’s availability, especially when it comes to the area of marijuana cultivation.
DEA talking points about marijuana have continued to emphasize that it is the most commonly abused drug in the United States. They attribute its high availability to large-scale cultivation in Mexico and increased levels of domestic cultivation, especially indoor grows and “an increase of marijuana cultivated in states that have passed state-approved ‘medical marijuana’ initiatives.” (In this report, the DEA continually footnotes the term “medical marijuana,” a phrase always in quotes, to explain this is a state policy and that under federal law marijuana “has no accepted medical use in the United States.”)
The DEA’s survey of local and state agencies finds that 80 percent report that marijuana availability is high in their areas.
DEA seizures of outdoor marijuana plants had been declining in recent years, from 9.9 million plants in 2009 to 3.6 million in 2012. They attribute this decline to budget problems following the 2008 financial crises, but they also acknowledge shifts in state and local priorities due to new laws decriminalizing marijuana in many states.
The DEA also claimed their success in eradicating marijuana cultivation on public land has caused a shift in growing strategies. Indeed, the historically high seizure levels in 2009 and 2010 were due to seizures of exceptionally large Mexican grow operations on public lands in California.
The DEA reported that cultivation has shifted to private lands and indoor grows, but this claim is a bit disingenuous. There has always been significant cultivation on private property, both inside and outside. Indoor grow seizures have been growing over the last several decades and outside paramilitary eradication efforts have become as routine as the seasons.
However, it is more difficult for the DEA to prevent marijuana cultivation on private property than on public lands. The problem is that pesky Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the right to privacy and diminishing public support. Or, as the DEA explained “grows on private lands require prosecutors and judges to approve search warrants; this is a difficult task in areas where state marijuana laws have changed.”
Meanwhile, the flow of marijuana from Mexico remains steady. U.S. Customs continues to seize 2.8 million pounds of marijuana annually along the Southwest border. Smugglers rely on a variety of tactics, including “subterranean tunnels, shipment containers, and hidden compartments in vehicles.” Over 80 tunnel systems have been detected in the Southwest since 2006, many with rail and lighting systems.
The agency has a number of other concerns about marijuana, including the rise in popularity of marijuana concentrates and edibles and the threats posed by synthetic cannabinoids such as “K2” and “Spice.” The agency is also concerned about survey data indicating that 34 percent of teens living in medical marijuana states that have used marijuana in the last year reported that their source of marijuana was another person’s medical marijuana recommendation. The DEA is alarmed that an “increasing number of adolescents do not perceive marijuana abuse as harmful.”
The DEA is undergoing a cognitive crisis when it comes to the subject of marijuana in America. They are not able to think about marijuana in any terms other than “use is the same as abuse,” nor can they accept that their efforts to reduce cultivation, importation and use over the last several decades have failed. The agency is having a hard time accepting the fact that as more and more people get personal knowledge about marijuana and marijuana users, less and less people support prohibition.
Nonetheless, the DEA made some startling admissions in this report. First, as indicated above, marijuana is not considered a great threat by local law enforcement—other drug problems are a much greater priority. Second, availability of marijuana will continue to “escalate” and domestic production “is likely to increase, especially in states that allow unregulated personal grows.” Third, the U.S. will continue to import large quantities of marijuana from Mexico.
This last point is, in many respects, a compelling argument to accelerate the legalization process in the United States. And in a back-handed way, the DEA has also acknowledged the need for less restrictive regulation of marijuana in areas where it has been or will be legalized by local law.
Local regulations are being shaped by a stated federal preference (coming from the U.S. Department of Justice) for strict controls and by a local desire to maximize the flow of tax revenues from marijuana. High Times has argued that strict controls and prioritizing tax revenue is inconsistent with public support for eliminating the unregulated illegal market in marijuana, and ironically, the DEA agrees. According the DEA’s 2014 report “although some states have legalized the sale of marijuana, there will continue to be a “black market” in these states due to high taxes and state-imposed restrictions.”