Report: Federal asset forfeiture fund balloons while oversight is lacking

August 10, 2012 | Mike Liszewski
On the heels of introduction of HR 6335, the States’ Medical Marijuana Property Right Protection Act, by Barbara Lee (D-CA) in Congress last week, safe access advocates might want to take a look at the Government Accountability Office (GAO) July 12, 2012 report on the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Asset Forfeiture Fund (AFF). What the GAO discovered is that the Department of Justice has expended over $1 billion for the past several years on forfeiture, but reporting data remains elusive for Congressional oversight and public scrutiny.

For those unfamiliar with the AFF and how it pertains to medical cannabis, check out some of ASA’s earlier work on this topic. But even those who have been following this issue may be interested to know that the AFF has 3 goals:

  1. to punish and deter criminal activity;

  2. to enhance cooperation among federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies “through the equitable sharing of assets recovered through this Fund;” and

  3. to produce revenues in support of future law enforcement investigations and related forfeiture activities.


To connect the dots for how this relates to medical cannabis, the DOJ is using civil forfeiture (and thereby sidestepping Constitutional protections provided to criminal defendants) to seize property that is associated with legal activity authorized by state and local law, in an effort enhance cooperation with with law enforcement agencies that permit the activity in question. So the only practical purpose the AFF has when applied to medical cannabis dispensary properties is to secure revenue for other DOJ projects.

Costs obscured by lousy reporting and lack of oversight

The cost of how much the DOJ spends in this utterly absurd effort is obscured by the lousy reporting process has for outside oversight. The GOA specifically recommended that “provide more detailed information to Congress as part of the AFF's annual budget process, clearly documenting how DOJ determines” key data. The reason for this is that the reporting data does not appear to have breakdowns for civil and criminal forfeiture, merely some anecdotal examples. However, by checking the tables that are provided, on can see that the AFF revenue has increased nearly 350% since 2003, from $500 million in 2003, to $1.8 billion in 2011. Perhaps more disturbing is the amount of money that it costs the DOJ to run the AFF. Since 2007, expenditures on the AFF have exclipsed a billion dollars each year, reaching a high of $1.3 billion in 2011.

This is one of many areas where the Obama Administration has fallen asleep when it comes to respecting the rights and dignity of medical cannabis patients, caregivers and providers. In addition to illuminating the AFF reporting process, the DOJ is also embarrassing the United States every day by maintaining marijuana in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, asserting that marijuana has no medical value. This lack of transparency and respect is precisely why Congress should give HR 6335 full hearings.

Mike Liszewski is ASA's Policy Director.
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