Politics

Editorial: Bipartisanship critical to curb civil asset forfeiture and marijuana crackdowns

Bipartisanship in Congress is key to preventing the unwarranted expansion of civil asset forfeiture or the prospect of federal crackdowns on states that have legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Reversing Obama administration limits on the practice earlier this year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made clear his support for the often-abused practice of civil asset forfeiture.

As documented by the Institute for Justice, from 2001 through 2014, the forfeiture funds of the U.S. Department of Justice and the Treasury Department took in a combined $29 billion worth of assets regardless of whether or not the property owner is ever even charged with a crime.

With so much money on the line, and a program known as “equitable sharing,” whereby local and state law enforcement agencies are able to get a large cut of seized assets when partnering with federal agencies, law enforcement priorities have often been twisted toward more potentially lucrative cases.

In other instances, as documented by groups like IJ and the Drug Policy Alliance, the use of civil asset forfeiture can often resemble legalized theft, with cash, cars and other assets seized with the most arbitrary of justifications.

Such distortions of police priorities prompted a 2015 directive from Attorney General Eric Holder to curtail equitable sharing, which Sessions scrapped in July, saying the practice was needed “in order to hit organized crime in the wallet.”

While a noble cover, civil asset forfeiture has proven to be a fundamentally untenable tool in a society that values due process and property rights.

Fortunately, a bipartisan group of senators is pushing for the defunding of the DOJ’s implementation of expanded civil asset forfeiture practices. Toward that end, Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, Rand Paul, R-Ky., Angus King, I-Vt., Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Tom Udall, D-N.M., recently sent a joint letter to Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and Ranking Member Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., asking to do just that.

Rather than facilitate the expansion of a practice that the senators note often boils down to “an obvious violation of the due process protections” of Americans, the Congress should put a halt to or at least impose severe limits on the practice.

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Meanwhile, the pressure is mounting on Congress to extend the critical protections for states that have chosen to legalize medical marijuana, which today is the majority of states. In total, 29 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws allowing some lawful access of marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Since marijuana remains illegal under federal law, the bipartisan Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment prohibiting the use of federal funds to meddle with state medical marijuana laws has been critical to shielding patients and above-board operators from federal crackdowns.

Ultimately, the tension between state and federal laws won’t be resolved until Congress permanently changes federal law to give states more flexibility to decide their own policies on marijuana.

While in the long run the best thing that could happen is for the Congress to recognize that marijuana prohibition or legalization shouldn’t be a federal responsibility, for now the important thing is for the Congress to extend the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment.


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