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Strapped U.S. Police Turn to Marijuana Busts for Cash

Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko, his budget under pressure in a weak economy, has laid off staff, reduced patrols and even released jail inmates. But there's one mission on which he's spending more than in recent years: pot busts, The Wall Street Journal reported Saturday.

The reason is simple: If the California lawman steps up his pursuit of marijuana growers, his department is eligible for roughly half a million dollars a year in federal anti-drug funding, helping save some jobs. The majority of the funding would have to be used to fight pot. Marijuana may not be the county's most pressing crime problem, the sheriff says, but "it's where the money is."

Washington has long allocated funds to help localities fight crime, influencing their priorities in the process. Today's local budget squeezes are enhancing this effect, and the result is particularly striking in California, where many residents take a benign view of pot but federal dollars help keep law-enforcement focused on it.

To make sure his office gets the federal funds, Bosenko since last year has spent about $340,000 of his department's shrinking resources, more than in past years, on a team that tramps through the woods looking for pot farms. Though the squad is mostly U.S.-funded, the federal grants don't cover some of its needs, such as a team chief and certain equipment. So, Bosenko has to pay for those out of his regular budget.

He doesn't doubt the value of pursuing pot farming, which he says is often the work of sophisticated Mexican gangs and leads to other crimes like assault. But other infractions, like drunken driving and robbery, may have a bigger direct impact on local residents than pot growing, he says.

The pot money is "$340,000 I could use somewhere else in my organization," he says. "That could fund three officers' salaries and benefits, and we could have them out on our streets doing patrol." His overall budget this year is about $35 million.

The U.S. Justice Department is spending nearly $3.6 billion this year to augment budgets of state and local law enforcement agencies. In addition, the federal government last year set aside close to $4 billion of the economic stimulus package for law enforcement grants for state and local agencies. The White House also is spending about $239 million this year to fund local drug trafficking task forces.

Much of the federal money helps local agencies go after sophisticated criminal gangs and hard drugs like methamphetamine. Even staunch supporters of legal pot don't dispute the value of that.

Click here for more on this story from The Wall Street Journal.