The Drug Enforcement Administration seized far less marijuana plants in 2018 compared to the previous year but they made significantly more cannabis-related arrests, according to federal data.
More than 2.8 million indoor and outdoor cannabis plants were seized last year as part of the DEA’s Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program. That marks a 17 percent decline from 2017 levels. DEA said that the value of the assets totaled about $52 million—more than twice as much as it reported the previous year.
The report provides a total breakdown of all the marijuana seized by the agency and its law enforcement partners as part of the country’s only nationwide law enforcement program exclusively targeting cannabis cultivation. The five states with the most cannabis seized in 2018 were California with 1.8 million, Kentucky with 418,000, Washington with 112,000, Mississippi with 70,000 and West Virginia with 68,000.
State-level legalization efforts appear to have played a role in the declining number of plant seizures, particularly those cultivated outdoors. In the same year that retail cannabis sales started in California, DEA confiscated almost 40 percent fewer outdoor plants in the state compared to 2017.
The advocates over at NORML noted the seizure totals in 2018 represented a 17% decline from 2017, and a whopping 66% decline from 2016, when the DEA seized 5.3 million marijuana plants nationwide. 2016 also was the biggest year on record since 2011, when the DEA seized 6.7 million plants — or enough to give every person in Washington state a plant of their own.
As the success of these enforcement programs continues to decline, NORML says they’re a thing of the past.
“These federal eradication programs are a holdover from a bygone era,” NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano
That data point is consistent with recent research showing that legalization is associated with a decrease in the number of illicit cannabis grows in national forests, which are often targets for DEA enforcement action.
It’s not clear why there was a significant uptick in marijuana-related arrests, but those increases generally did not occur in states where legal cannabis systems were recently implemented.
For example, arrests in Kansas, where marijuana is strictly prohibited, increased by more than 3,500 percent—from 15 to 544—from 2017 to 2018. Louisiana likewise experienced a 168 percent increase in cannabis arrests.
The Cost of the DEA’s Cannabis Eradication Efforts
After the DEA released their numbers from 2018, the Government Accountability Office released their official review of the DCE/SP. The GAO — which is the federal government’s official auditing branch — noted that on average, over $17 million went to the program between 2015 and 2018. According to these numbers, that would mean the DEA spent $3.20 per plant in 2016 when seizing marijuana. In just two years, that price has almost doubled to $6.07 per plant.
The majority of the funds allocated to the DEA’s local law enforcement partners went to cover overtime pay and air support. The costs of keeping a helicopter up alone burns thousands of dollars in aviation fuel per hour.
Apart from noting the expense of the program, the GAO also had some harsher takeaways for the program about its problems keeping a reliable count on the expense of the efforts.
“DEA oversees participating agencies’ compliance with program expenditure requirements in various ways, but does not consistently collect supporting documentation for expenditure reports,” the GAO report noted. “DEA field officials collect varying levels of documentation, and headquarters officials were not aware of these varying practices.”
The GAO also says the problems aren’t exclusively in-house at the DEA, and that the local law enforcement partners the DEA worked with were keeping different records.
“DEA collects information on program activities to help manage DCE/SP, such as number of plants eradicated,” the GEO report said. “However, participating agencies GAO spoke with have practices for reporting some program activities that differ from DEA’s guidance due to varying interpretations of the guidance.”
The GAO said due to all these problems, the program’s “information is neither fully accurate nor reliable for assessing program performance.”
The report noted that the DEA agreed with the GAO’s findings. They said they would redo the handbook by summer chopping season so contractors wouldn’t slip up, clarify and provide guidance on the what is supposed to be reported and actually give the program tangible goals — as opposed to just chopping all the weed down.
DEA has also faced criticism of its cannabis eradication efforts from a non-partisan federal watchdog agency last year for failing to adequately collect documentation from state and local law enforcement partners funded through the program.
The Government Accountability Office said in a report that DEA “has not clearly documented all of its program goals or developed performance measures to assess progress toward those goals.”
At the same time that DEA is seizing fewer plants grown illicitly, it’s also setting higher goals for federally authorized cannabis cultivation for research purposes. In 2019, the agency said it hoped to grow approximately 5,400 pounds of marijuana to meet research demand, which is more than double its quota for 2018.