DEA Seized More Marijuana Plants In 2019, But Arrests Fell

Marijuana Moment [April 14, 2020]

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) seized more than four million marijuana plants last year, according to a new annual report from the agency.

That marks a nearly 43 percent increase from 2018 figures. However, while that change is significant, it doesn’t necessarily reflect an expansion of DEA’s Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program (DCE/SP), as the number of arrests made and grow sites targeted declined.

For example, the agency eradicated about 770,000 indoor cultivated cannabis plants in 2019—almost 200,000 more than in 2018. But the count of individual indoor cultivation facilities that were impacted decreased from 1,618 to 1,437, signaling that the sites themselves are producing more marijuana, rather than DEA broadening the scope of its enforcement activities.

Arrests associated with the program decreased from about 5,600 in 2018 to 4,700 last year, a roughly 15 percent difference.

The spike in total cannabis plant seizures also seems largely attributable to enforcement activity in one state, California, where 3.1 million plants were taken. The previous year, 1.8 million plants were seized in the state.

“Indoor and outdoor marijuana seizures remain relatively low-hanging fruit for the DEA,” NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano told Marijuana Moment. “Making these seizures is an attempt for the DEA to try and stay relevant and make headlines. But it doesn’t change the fact that American culture is heading in a very different direction.”

Of course, DEA claimed “success” of the program and touted its new figures in a webpage housing the annual reports.

“The success of the DCE/SP is directly attributed to the decision of the participating agencies to share intelligence, technology and manpower,” the agency said. “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. Cultivators are also growing indoor and outdoor cannabis under the cover of various states legal cannabis grows.”

DEA also noted that the “use of hydroponics (growing plants in a nutrient laden solution rather than conventional soil) and other technological advances have enabled cultivators to increase the potency” of THC.

In other words, illicit cultivators are innovating and continuing to operate despite years of prohibition enforcement efforts on DEA’s part.

Interestingly, the new report also shows that the estimated value of seized assets decreased significantly—from roughly $52 million in 2018 to about $29 million last year. The primary factor there seems to be Washington State, where the asset value of seized cannabis dropped from $25 million to $3.1 million.

DEA faced criticism over its handling of its cannabis eradication efforts in a 2018 report from the non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO), which found that the agency failed to adequately collect documentation from state and local law enforcement partners that received funds through the program. That failure could prevent the agency from being able to accurately assess “program performance,” GAO said.

Overall, federal cannabis prosecutions have been steadily declining in recent years as more states have opted to legalize marijuana for medical or recreational purposes.

A recent report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission illustrates that point. While marijuana trafficking cases represented the most common drug type that was pursued in 2012, with about 7,000 cases, that’s fallen to fewer than 2,000 cases as of last year.

According to a 2019 end-of-year report released by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, federal cannabis cases decreased by 28 percent compared to 2018—another apparent example of shifting prosecutorial priorities in the era of legalization.

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