A bad incentive for pot busts

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The Bay Citizen ran, without comment or perspective, a Bay City News item Dec. 23 noting that the Hayward Police Department and other local law-enforcement agencies picked up some $1.2 million when the feds disbursed the money that was seized from a marijuana dispensary that was busted in 2006.

This is a dirty side of the drug war that doesn't get enough discussion or attention: When the cops bust dealers who have cash (or even fancy cars) on hand, the money doesn't go to the general fund of a city or to the federal treasury (to fund, perhaps, alternatives to incarceration, drug treatment or education). It goes directly to the police agencies that made the arrests.

That's a huge incentive -- a direct cash incentive -- for police to focus on arresting drug dealers (in this case, an operation that was selling marijuana, which everyone with any sense knows ought to be legal anyway).

In an era of diminshed resources, if you're a police chief and you have a choice -- send your officers to raid a pot club, or send them onto the streets to try to prevent violent crimes -- there's a financial incentive to go after the pot club. That skews law-enforcement priorities in a bad way.

I'm hardly the first one to make this point, but it's worth thinking about when we see this kind of story celebrating the "true holiday gift" of drug money.