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August 28, 2006 - Rocky Mountain News (CO)

DEA Raises Cash To Fight Pot Issue

Measure's Backers Cry Foul, But Agency Says It's Within Law

By Ryan Morgan, Boulder Daily Camera

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

The Drug Enforcement Agency is stepping into the political fray to oppose a statewide ballot issue that would legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

In an e-mail to political campaign professionals, a DEA agent named Michael Moore asks for help in finding a campaign manager to defeat the measure, which voters will consider in November. If passed, it will allow people 21 and older to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana.

In the e-mail, which was sent from a U.S. Department of Justice account, Moore also writes that the group has $10,000 to launch the campaign. He asks those interested in helping to call him at his DEA office.

That has members of Safer Colorado, the group supporting the marijuana legalization measure, crying foul. The government has no business spending public money on politics, they say.

Steve Fox, the group's executive director, said members of the executive branch, including the DEA, should leave lawmaking to legislators.

"Taxpayer money should not be going toward the executive branch advocating one side or another," Fox said. "It's a wholly inappropriate use of taxpayer money."

Jeff Sweetin, special agent in charge of the Denver office of the DEA, said voters have every right to change the laws. But, he added, the law also allows his agency to get involved in that process to tell voters why they shouldn't decriminalize pot.

"My mantra has been, 'If Americans use the democratic process to make change, we're in favor of that,' " he said. "But as a caveat, we're in favor of it working based on all the facts."

Sweetin said the $10,000 the committee has to spend came from private donations, including some from agents' own accounts. He said the DEA isn't trying to "protect Coloradans from themselves" but that the agency is the expert when it comes to drugs.

"The American taxpayer does have a right to have the people they've paid to become experts in this business tell them what this is going to do," he said. "They should benefit from this expertise."

That argument threatens states' rights to make their own laws, said Safer's Fox.

"By this logic, federal funds could be used by the executive branch without limitation to campaign for or against state ballot initiatives," he said. "Our federalist system is based on the notion that states can establish their own laws without federal interference. The DEA . . . is thumbing its nose at the citizens of Colorado and the U.S. Constitution."

State and federal law take different approaches on political involvement by government employees.

Colorado law prohibits state employees from advocating for or against any political issue while on the job and also bars them from using government resources -- including phone and e-mail accounts -- for any kind of political advocacy.

But federal law -- which governs what DEA agents can do -- is different.

The Hatch Act, passed in 1939 and amended in 1993, governs most political speech.

Passed in the wake of patronage scandals in which the party in power would use government money and staff to campaign against the opposition, the law is mostly aimed at partisan political activity, said Ken Bickers, a University of Colorado political science professor.

While the act's prohibitions against on-the-job partisan politicking are strict, for the most part it allows federal employees to take part in nonpartisan politics. And it's mostly silent on nonpartisan ballot measures.

"I'm not sure that this doesn't slide through the cracks in the Hatch Act," Bickers said.

"The Hatch Act isn't about political activity -- it's about partisan political activity. Since this is a ballot initiative, and there's no party affiliation attached to it, that part of the Hatch Act probably wouldn't be violated."

An official from the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, the federal agency charged with investigating violations of the act, said in a statement last week that the DEA hasn't run afoul of Hatch.

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