Obama Administration Repeals Drug Seizure Laws--Oh Really?

Anaheim's Kush Expo: What war on drugs?
Anaheim's Kush Expo: What war on drugs?

On Jan. 16, just a day after the Weekly published a story on the City of Anaheim's failed attempt to use federal asset forfeiture law to seize a privately-owned building over a $37 pot sale, the >Washington Post reported that the feds were repealing key aspects of that law.

"[Attorney General Eric] Holder limits seized-asset sharing process that split billions with local, state police," the article stated. "Holder's action represents the most sweeping check on police power to confiscate personal property since the seizures began three decades ago as part of the war on drugs," the article claimed, adding that in the past six years, "thousands of local and state police agencies have made more than 55,000 seizures of cash and property worth $3 billion." Those seizures fell under an asset forfeiture program administered by Holder's Justice Department known as "Equitable Sharing."

So does Holder's announcement really spell the end of the federal government's right to seize drug-tied private property without winning a conviction or even filing charges against a suspect?

Anaheim's Kush Expo: What war on drugs?
Anaheim's Kush Expo: What war on drugs?

Yes and no. According to Holder's announcement, the feds can only seize property in the interest of public safety, two examples being weapons and property relating to child pornography production. Drugs is specifically not on the list of cases where seizures can continue.

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And the equitable sharing program the Post says Holder killed is exactly the one that Anaheim used to try to seize the building in the case recently covered by the Weekly where the landlord, Tony Jalali, stood to lose his $1.5 million office building (and retirement nest egg) because he'd rented to a marijuana dispensary. Under the terms of the equitable sharing agreement, Anaheim would have kept 80 percent of the proceeds from the sale of Jalali's building while the feds would receive only 20 percent. (As the Weekly reported in 2013, Anaheim has reaped $21.5 million in such proceeds since 2008).

But despite the Post's big scoop, not everyone is buying the notion that one of the most abusive aspects of the war on drugs is really over. In a Jan 22 Forbes magazine article, Jacob Sullum reported that rather than eliminating equitable sharing, Holder simply restricted one aspect of it, so-called asset adoption "where a state or local law enforcement agency seizes an asset and then asks the Justice Department to pursue forfeiture under federal law."

In other words, local cops can't just take your property if they think you're a drug dealer, but they can still ask the feds to do it for them, which is exactly what happened to Jalali. As Sullum acknowledges, Holder's announcement is still welcome news, but there's still a long way to go. That said, together with this development, the fact that the feds backed out of Jalali's case could be a strong indication that the drug war-fueled asset forfeiture bonanza may finally be winding down.

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Email: nschou@ocweekly.com. Twitter: @NickSchou. Follow OC Weekly on Twitter @ocweekly or on Facebook!

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