Congressional Dems Grill Justice Dept. on DEA Protest Enforcement

By Hilary Corrigan
Jun 9, 2020

Democrats in Congress want to rein in the DEA.

In a Monday letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.)—co-chairs of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus—called for rescinding the temporarily expanded powers granted to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration during recent protests. That expansion enables the agency to conduct covert surveillance on protesters, share intelligence with other agencies and arrest protesters.

The letter calls it inappropriate for DEA to use surveillance equipment to “discourage, monitor, and suppress” protesters’ First Amendment rights. Doing so, it warns, will inflame the ongoing civil unrest and violate Fourth Amendment rights prohibiting unreasonable search and seizure.

“Notably, the DOJ did not seek such broad surveillance power to investigate the protest activities of armed groups of mostly white protestors storming several state capitols earlier this year,” the letter says.

Additionally, the letter calls for Congress to reevaluate the policies that DEA normally enforces and the technology it can access. Under the federal Controlled Substances Act, it notes, the first offense related to possessing any amount of cannabis can result in a year-long incarceration and $1,000 fine—despite many citizens living in jurisdictions that have legalized REC and MED. Under the new guidelines, DEA could potentially make sweeping arrests during protests for an activity — cannabis possession — that’s legal in the states where the protests take place.

The Nixon Administration used drug enforcement to criminalize and suppress the civil rights movement, the letter says. “The enforcement of federal marijuana laws is rooted in racial discrimination.”

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‘Disproportionate arrest trends’

Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Karen Bass (D-Calif.) sent a similar letter to Barr on Friday. That letter cited DEA corruption, firearms offenses and “a history and practice of disproportionately targeting people of color.” It also points to DEA’s large number of marijuana-related arrests.

“This Administration’s counterproductive focus on non-violent drug offenses is a plain reminder that the DEA is out of touch,” the letter says. It says attitudes have shifted to support substance abuse treatment, legal marijuana and reducing harsh drug sentences. “Wider deployment of the DEA may only continue the disproportionate arrest trends that, in part, motivate the expressions of outrage that we are witnessing.”

A separate related letter sent by 100 Congressional Democrats to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection calls for explanations over those agencies’ involvement in the ongoing protests.

“We need answers regarding what, precisely, your agencies will be doing and what policies and procedures are in place to protect the rights of individuals with whom you come into contact,” the letter states. It includes a long list of detailed questions for the agencies.

For instance, it asks about agencies’ contact with the White House about deploying resources to protests, and how they collect information from protestors. It seeks citations of the laws they rely on to do any enforcement work unrelated to immigration.

Furthermore, it questions whether the agencies share any footage from “aviation assets” with other agencies and whether personnel receive training on First Amendment rights.

NORML Writes to NIDA

Separately, NORML sent a letter Monday to Nora D. Volkow, head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, calling for her to demand an end to marijuana prohibition. The letter also demands recognizing that prohibition is more damaging than marijuana itself.

The letter responds to Volkow’s blog post from last week, which found that while white and Black Americans use drugs at a similar rate, Black people are far more likely to be arrested and incarcerated for drug offenses.

“This use of drug use and addiction as a lever to suppress people of a particular race has had devastating effects on communities of color,” Volkow’s blog post states. “Entrenched, systemic, pervasive racism is perpetuated by silence, and we cannot let it continue.”

Also on Monday, Democrats in the House and Senate introduced the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, a wide-ranging measure to reform police tactics. Parts of the proposal would ban no-knock warrants in federal drug cases; require the Attorney General to collect data on the racial distribution of drug charges; and prohibit law enforcement from racial and other profiling.