WASHINGTON – If polls are any indication, the events of Sept. 11 have sparked a resurgence of support for Uncle Sam’s activities. But not all government agencies are enjoying this renewed swell of pride and confidence.
The Drug Enforcement Agency, long a target of attacks by those who believe the drug war to be a failure, is taking its still share of hits, but now the concern is that they are too busy bullying ailing cannabis smokers to join in the war on terrorism.
"(The DEA) do not appear to be sharing in the effort to combat the war on terror," charged Dave Koppel, a criminal justice expert for the Independence Institute and a critic of the war on drugs.
Koppel believes that rather than taking a lead in eliminating Afghanistan’s massive opium trade, long a source of cash for the Taliban and Al Qaeda, the DEA doesn’t seemed to have changed its priorities. Case in point: three major DEA raids after Sept. 11 on California facilities that supply medicinal marijuana to the terminally ill.
"It seems they are going after the last problem in the Drug War that you’d think is important right now — they’re going after people with AIDS who are trying to keep their food down."
But the DEA isn’t falling into any traps.
"Those who are criticizing the DEA now have been doing so for a long time, pre-Sept. 11," offered Agent Tom Hinojosa. "We don’t write the laws, we enforce them. There are millions of people out there. We do our job but don’t necessarily please everybody."
The new head of the DEA, former Republican Congressman Asa Hutchinson, says the agency is working closely with the administration to wipe out the poppy crops that have made Afghanistan the largest supplier of opium in the world today.
"We’re going to have a team ready to go," Hutchinson told Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly last week when asked if the DEA will be present in Afghanistan to assist in the post-Taliban process.
In recent testimony before Congress, Hutchinson said the "relationship between the Taliban and bin Laden is believed to have flourished in large part thanks to the Taliban’s substantial reliance on the opium trade as a source of organizational revenue."
In testimony to Congress recently, Hutchinson asserted that the recent attacks graphically illustrate the need to deprive Al Qaeda of the drug proceeds used to fund acts of terror. To that end, he said, the DEA is sharing intelligence, evidence and research with the FBI through its foreign offices in 56 different countries.
"We are doing things in a proactive manner," said DEA spokesman Hinojosa. "We’re not turning away from this, we’re facing it head-on."
But if the war on terror is of such tantamount importance, questions Koppel, why divert resources to raids on California cannabis facilities?
"Amazingly, the biggest news out of the DEA since Sept. 11 has been a massive new crackdown on drug users whom we know not to be associated with terrorist suppliers," he said.
The agency’s website brags mainly about recent cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, methamphetamine and marijuana busts. There is only passing mention of the agency’s anti-terror activities, Koppel points out. Since September, the agency also has raided and destroyed a marijuana garden in Ventura Garden, seized patient records in a medical research facility in El Dorado and shut down the Los Angeles Cannabis Resources Center after seizing the records of several thousand patients smoking marijuana for medicinal purposes.
In 1996, the State of California passed a referendum allowing physicians to prescribe marijuana for medicinal purposes. But marijuana is still illegal under federal law, so with the backing of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in its favor, the feds have warned that they will continue to arrest and prosecute anyone using the drug.
Considering its recent activity, the DEA’s critics wonder whether the agency has really shifted its focus to what they say is the real drug problem: terrorists who sell drugs to run their operations.
"One way to help satisfy the public that (the DEA) are doing what the public thinks is priority work like fighting terrorism is not to engage in low-level enforcement like busting a Los Angeles cannabis facility," said Eric. E. Sterling, the president of the Criminal Justice Foundation.
"What is striking is they’re going after a program designed to help sick people," he said. "It’s not like they're protecting these people from some big dangerous thing."
Hinojosa answer with a shrug. "We have a mission to fulfill and were trying to seize the moment and do the best job we can," he said.