Drugs: Reefer Madness


It was a paranoid nightmare come true. Three guys in suits come to your door and flash badges at you. "Hello, Mr. Jones," one of them says with officious politeness. "We have reason to believe you have narcotics on the premises. May we come in and have a look?"

The scene was repeated throughout the country in late October as part of Operation Green Merchant, a scare campaign aimed at indoor marijuana growers. Equipped with lists of people who had purchased gardening equipment, state and federal agents searched hundreds of homes in 46 states for evidence of cannabis cultivation. When they had no basis for warrants, the agents used intimidation and deception to gain access, telling suspected marijuana growers the government was already aware of their illegal activity. In at least one case, agents posed as landscapers seeking gardening advice.

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws received about 100 alarmed calls from people subjected to such "consent" searches, including Joseph Huberman, a Raleigh, North Carolina, orchid grower. Huberman says he was baffled when agents from the State Bureau of Investigation showed up at his door, but decided to let them in.

"I had the impression that if I made them get a warrant, they would tear the house apart," he says. After the fruitless search, Huberman learned he was on the hit list because he had bought a light meter for his indoor orchid garden from Applied Hydroponics, a mail-order firm.

The Drug Enforcement Administration says it found 278 marijuana gardens during the operation, most of them in the fall. But it won't say how many homes were searched, or whether any of the searches were performed under warrant, or how many vicious orchid and tomato growers were exposed. DEA spokesperson Melvin Smith says the agency did not record the number of unsuccessful searches, and he can't imagine why anyone would want that figure. (Smith gets flustered when he's asked for information that's not on his official "fact sheet.") Virtually all of the equipment sold by suppliers whose customers the DEA targeted—including lights, circulating fans, and drip irrigation systems—can be used for legal purposes.

"This is the Grenada of the drug war," says Don Fiedler, NORML's national president. "They're going after the easiest targets." He says most of the indoor growers nabbed by the DEA were raising small amounts of marijuana for personal use. The operation, which also included raids on equipment stores, resulted in more than 370 arrests, 259 of them between October 26 and November 2.

According to U.S. News & World Report, Operation Green Merchant got a big boost last summer, when the DEA subpoenaed the shipping records of 29 gardening equipment companies from the United Parcel Service, gathering the names and addresses of 21,000 customers. UPS denies supplying any records, either voluntarily or under subpoena. Fiedler says DEA agents also obtained customer lists from suppliers by posing as UPS employees. The DEA's Smith says he doesn't know where the information came from, and if he did, he wouldn't tell.

In any event, the DEA was able to seize customer records directly when it raided 46 equipment stores in conjunction with the home searches last fall. The assets of 19 stores were seized, raising the confiscation total for the operation to $7.3 million. In addition to civil forfeiture, suppliers face criminal charges. They can be charged with conspiracy or with aiding and abetting marijuana cultivation, in which case their sentences would depend on the size of their customers' gardens. Moreover, the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act prohibits possession or sale of drug paraphernalia, including otherwise legal equipment intended for use in production, processing, or consumption of drugs.

To establish criminal intent, the DEA enlisted growers as confederates by threatening to bring criminal charges against them. The growers would call stores and solicit advice on marijuana cultivation, while the DEA recorded the conversations. In other cases, DEA agents wired for sound posed as customers and tried to trick salespeople into saying something incriminating.

The latter strategy was apt to arouse suspicion, however, since people who grow marijuana do not generally announce the fact. At the Full Moon shop in Corvallis, Oregon, for example, an agent who declared "I want to grow some Sinsemilla bud" was informed by a wary salesman, "I can't sell you any equipment if you're going to tell me that." (Even after such a disclaimer, however, a merchant could still be held liable for selling equipment to a DEA agent.) To supplement such skimpy evidence and obtain a search warrant for Full Moon, the DEA cited editorials and articles from Sinsemilla Tips, a magazine published by the shop's owner, Thomas Alexander.

On October 26, DEA agents stormed into Alexander's shop with guns drawn. They seized $30,000 in equipment, took Full Moon's records, and subsequently froze the company's bank account. Alexander, an outspoken proponent of legalization, says he was targeted because of his views. He recalls that when he debated a DEA agent on a radio talk show in January 1989, the agent "said he wished he had enough money so he could come after me. He said, 'You're just hiding behind the First Amendment.'"

That attitude appears to be typical. According to U.S. News, DEA agent Jim Seward thought up Operation Green Merchant after reading High Times and concluding that it "just seemed to be a middleman in a dope deal." Unfortunately, it is legal to sell marijuana seeds, indoor cultivation equipment, and growing guides, and the DEA is prevented from simply closing down magazines such as High Times and Sinsemilla Tips by that pesky First Amendment.

But the agency can still try to bleed the publications dry by harassing their advertisers. Almost all the suppliers of indoor gardening equipment that advertise in Sinsemilla Tips, many of which also advertise in mainstream publications, have been visited by DEA agents or slapped with subpoenas or seizure warrants.

"I think it's a pretty serious attack on the press," says High Times editor Steve Hager.

This is no accident. Attacks on the press—and on indoor orchid growers, for that matter—are an inevitable part of a serious war on drugs. If the government really means to stamp out drug use, it cannot be restrained by such niceties as privacy rights or freedom of speech.

Jacob Sullum is assistant editor of REASON.