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Government Shutdown? Not for the DEA

The government may be closed for the time being, but the federal crackdown on medical weed won’t miss a beat.

That’s because the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the Obama administration’s front line in the war on sane drug policy, has furloughed very few of its workers. Under the contingency plan carried out by the Justice Department, 87 percent of the DEA workforce is still on the job.

By comparison, about 30 percent of civilian intelligence staff are at work, while less than 70 percent of the overall workforce employed by the Justice Department and its various agencies – including the DEA and FBI – remains.

Justice says it’s keeping the DEA at near-full staffing because “DEA investigations need to continue uninterrupted so that cases are not compromised and the health and safety of the American public is not placed at risk.” The department has not explained why weed crackdowns are more critical than other forms of federal law enforcement.

But more of those are the likely end result of Justice’s decision to keep DEA staffers working. The agency has long targeted California’s medical marijuana industry with aggressive enforcement, working with prosecutors to put dispensary owners and cultivators in prison and seize their property – despite the state’s 1996 medical cannabis law.

LAPDBecause medicinal marijuana is legal in the Golden State but illegal under federal law, providers and the DEA have found themselves in something of a standoff. Justice announced in late August that it won’t target growers and sellers in states where pot is legal, as long as they conform to tightly enforced state laws that meet certain federal priorities, such as preventing violence in the marijuana trade.

Still, prosecutors and federal law enforcement seem unlikely to stop going after weed businesses here. U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag, prosecutor for the Northern District of California, has announced she will continue ongoing prosecutions against dispensaries in the Bay Area that are legal under state law. And local police in many municipalities are eager to work with federal law enforcement to drive legal pot out of their communities.

But are the DEA agents really needed on the payroll? According to a new study published in the BMJ Open medical journal, not so much. As it turns out, marijuana potency increased dramatically between 1990 and 2009 while prices dropped dramatically relative to inflation and potency – despite all the efforts of the federal government to strangle supply. The same holds true for cocaine and heroin.

In other words, the government is placing a higher priority on a problem it can’t control – drugs – than on a problem it can – intelligence and threats to national security.

About Matt Brooks

Based in San Francisco, Matt is a journalist who has specialized in marijuana policy for more than five years. He provides regular news coverage on marijuanaandthelaw.com and californiamarijuanamarket.com.

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