Medical Marijuana States Face an Eager DEA That's Manipulating Its Numbers to Look Good


Another day, another DEA marijuana dispensary raid. Right?

Wrong. Don't be fooled. 

Although the DEA has increased their targeting of medicinal marijuana dispensaries since 2009 and numbers show that they spent $180k per day on medical marijuana raids, their authoritarian enforcement efforts could be winding down.

Today at 2:30 p.m. EST, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee will host a hearing, “Conflicts between State and Federal Marijuana Laws,” to follow up with the Justice Department’s announcement about not interfering with state marijuana laws in August. Watch the live webcast (or the taped recording) to see a Seattle sheriff, a legal counsel to the Colorado governor, and the director of the Drug Policy Institute make the case for federal non-intervention and state autonomy.

Outside of the legislative arena, the DEA’s raids are tapering off, too. Their recent 2012 Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Statistical Report, which tracks domestic indoor and outdoor cannabis eradication, number of plants eradicated, and assets and weapons seized revealed the lowest numbers in nearly a decade.

The marijuana advocacy organization NORML calculates that the number of plants eradicated dropped 42% from 2011 to 2012, following a sharp decline since 2010.

DEA, Cannabis Eradication


As a parallel, the number of marijuana growth sites eradicated has been falling too. This means that the DEA is not only eradicating fewer plants, but also has not found as many undercover producers since 2010.

DEA, Cannabis Eradication

Of course, none of these graphs are presented in the DEA’s report. They conveniently do not compare any of their numbers to their numbers in years past, as I did above. They also insist that their eradication program is putting an end to the cultivation of domestic cannabis, “despite cultivator efforts.” In their 2012 report, they also applaud themselves and their outdoor eradication efforts, stating, “In many areas of the U.S., cultivators have been forced to abandon large outdoor cannabis plots in favor of smaller, better concealed illicit gardens.” Yet as the numbers show, there has been no substantive increase in their targeting of illicit indoor marijuana growth sites.

It is important to note a failure in the DEA’s metrics and the use of the term “eradication.” The DEA loves to use their “eradication efforts” as a barometer of their success both domestically and abroad. It is easy to see why they favor the variable: It shows a concrete action they are doing (Blam! Just eradicated that plant), and as long as they eradicate more than the previous year, they look successful.

The problem with pegging “success” to “eradication” is vast. It excludes the important frame of reference of the total number of plants planted over time and allows for easy data manipulation. As an example, the DEA might consider it a success to eradicate 25 out of 100 plants in one year, and then 50 out of 100 the next. That would be a 100% increase in plants eradicated, and a change in the ratio of plants eradicated: not eradicated of 1:4 to 1:2. They probably would not, however, claim a success if they eradicated 25 out of 100 plants in one year, and then, after a spike in cultivation, eradicated 50 out of 5,000 plants the following year. In this scenario, they eradicate only 1% of the possible plants, and their ratio of plants eradicated: not eradicated jumps from 1:4 to 1:100.

As this example shows, the variable “plants eradicated” only tells us half of the story. In both cases, the number of plants eradicated went from 25 to 50, but the total number of plants available was quite different. This is dangerous, because it allows the DEA to unapologetically consider their eradication practices “effective” and “successful,” even if they eradicate a smaller and smaller percentage of plants each year.

With the release of the 2012 report, decade-low levels of eradication, and the Justice Department’s commitment to not intervene in state affairs, there could be a window of opportunity to curtail DEA eradication efforts in marijuana-friendly states.

Let’s hold the DEA accountable for their actions and not let them claim a success by only telling half of the story.