Earlier today, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that local and state law enforcement would no longer be able to use federal asset forfeiture laws to seize and keep property without evidence of a crime.
Holder’s action represents the most sweeping check on police power to confiscate personal property since the seizures began three decades ago as part of the war on drugs.
Since 2008, thousands of local and state police agencies have made more than 55,000 seizures of cash and property worth $3 billion under a civil asset forfeiture program at the Justice Department called Equitable Sharing.
The program has enabled local and state police to make seizures and then have them “adopted” by federal agencies, which share in the proceeds. The program allowed police departments and drug task forces to keep up to 80 percent of the proceeds of the adopted seizures, with the rest going to federal agencies.
While police can continue to make seizures under their own state laws, the federal program was easy to use and required most of the proceeds from the seizures to go to local and state police departments. Many states require seized proceeds to go into the general fund.
A Justice official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the attorney general’s motivation, said Holder “also believes that the new policy will eliminate any possibility that the adoption process might unintentionally incentivize unnecessary stops and seizures.”
The old policy allowed law enforcement to take and keep people’s cash and property on the pretense of things like the scent of marijuana, even if none is found in their possession. Since the proceeds go directly to local police budgets, some argue that this was one of the primary reasons for law enforcement’s continued opposition to marijuana policy reform.
The impending departure of Eric Holder from the attorney general’s office has had many people analyzing his actions regarding the drug war during his tenure at the Department of Justice. Despite being present for some meaningful reforms, many think that Holder could have done so much more. According to Eric Sterling’s critique of Eric Holder’s drug policy record:
“Since Holder’s resignation yesterday, many advocates of drug policy reform are giving Holder high marks for his accomplishments, especially when compared to his recent predecessors. But taken on his own terms, Holder was a weak attorney general, and late to push for what he probably knew in his heart to be the right course of action. He failed to use his very close relationship with the president to improve and rationalize the criminal justice system and US drug policy sufficiently that these reforms would have acquired a permanence and acceptance—and that would have ensured his legacy. Holder’s legacy is more words than deeds.”
In recent talks with Attorney General Eric Holder, DEA Chief Michele Leonhart was encouraged to tone down the Drug War propaganda she has been advancing since the Obama administration did not sue the state of Colorado for legalizing marijuana. Since then, she has taken several public stands against the administration’s rhetoric on marijuana legalization and, more recently, lessening the punishment of people who commit federal drug crimes.
According to Huffington Post’s Ryan Reilly and Ryan Grim, Leonhart was “called in” by Holder for a “one [on] one chat about her recent insubordination.” As a 34-year bureaucrat of the DEA, Leonhart is having a hard time shifting her tone away from the DEA’s aggressive stance against illegal drugs.
Since the talks, Leonhart has said she “supports the Attorney General’s sentencing reform initiative to ensure those sentences are imposed appropriately” through legislation like the Smarter Sentencing Act. This type of legislation would save taxpayers billions of dollars and keep thousands of people out of jail for certain types of nonviolent crimes, like marijuana use, by eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing.
Michele Leonhart’s alignment with the Obama administration’s stance on drug sentencing and marijuana policy creates cautious optimism for change in the prosecution of unnecessary federal arrests.
Colorado lawmakers moved the marijuana industry away from its cash-only roots on Wednesday when they approved the world’s first financial system for marijuana businesses. The plan sets up a network of uninsured cooperatives, which gives the industry an avenue to basic banking services.
Even in light of Eric Holder’s comments on banking, marijuana businesses have still had a hard time finding banks to even let them open checking accounts, for fear of committing a federal crime. According to an AP article by Kristen Wyatt, “Shop owners in the state say a small number of credit unions will do business with them, too, though no banks or credit unions have said so publicly.”
Colorado’s new plan for banking would let marijuana business pool money in cooperatives, which would let stores accept credit cards and checks. However, these co-ops would need U.S. Federal Reserve approval first.
The plan has bipartisan support, partially because it gives the state the ability to audit marijuana shops and make sure they are paying taxes. Even Gov. John Hickenlooper supports the plan, and has pledged to sign it into law once he receives the final language of the bill.
Establishing a co-op-based banking system for marijuana businesses reduces the risk of crime by moving large cash reserves out of stores and into banks. It makes the industry more accountable and establishes a system that other states can follow as they begin to tax and regulate marijuana.
On Thursday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced his intent to craft regulations that would allow banking services for legitimate marijuana businesses throughout the country. Banks and credit card companies have been wary of working with marijuana businesses for fear of federal prosecution and loss of licensing, causing serious issues with public safety and hampering the growth of the industry. Advocates are hopeful that this statement directly from Holder, proposing regulations instead of guidance memos, signals a growing tolerance of marijuana policy reform among the states.