© 1994 Karen Selick
The Dark Side of the War on Drugs
An edited version of this article first appeared in the November, 1994 issue of Canadian Lawyer.  If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.


 The Dark Side of the War on Drugs

Last month in this column (Just Say No to the War on Drugs ) I suggested that the war on drugs was creating more problems for this country than it was solving.  I mentioned the waste of money, the increase in violence, the racial tension, and the dangers to law-abiding, freedom-loving citizens from the concomitant gun control crusade.

The war on drugs is an example of Canada's predilection for mimicking the very worst policies that the United States can dream up.  We are now showing signs of following them down yet another path in the anti-drug maze, one that promises to lead to even greater horrors than those I wrote about previously.  I'm referring to the asset seizure and money laundering laws.

A decade ago, U.S. federal racketeering laws were changed to permit the government to seize suspected crime proceeds without first charging, let alone convicting, the owner.  As well, financial institutions were required to report all transactions over $10,000, and smaller serial transactions if they appear to be designed to avoid the $10,000 limit.

According to Jarret B. Wollstein, associate editor of The Financial Privacy Report, there are now over 200 confiscation laws on the books.  Thousands of federal, state and local police departments and agencies have got into this game.  More than 5,000 confiscations occur each week.

The potential abuses of this kind of legislation were obvious from the start.  The police force that makes a seizure usually gets to keep at least a percentage, if not all, of the property it seizes, augmenting its departmental budget significantly.  No wonder so many police chiefs and officers are opposed to legalizing drugs. 

Homes, furnishings, boats and cars are often seized, then auctioned off.  It's a great opportunity for covetous neighbours or vengeful ex-spouses to snitch and then pick up some goodies cheap at the auction.

Informants are paid a commission by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) for reporting suspicious transactions.  That friendly airline clerk could turn you in for something as simple as paying cash for your ticket. 

Some people have had property seized on such scant evidence as police dogs reacting to traces of cocaine on dollar bills.  However, two separate studies have found that over 80 percent of the bills in circulation test positive for cocaine.

In 1992, more than $2 billion in assets were seized, often from people who were innocent of any wrong-doing.  Indeed, according to an investigation done by The Pittsburgh Press, "80 percent of the people who lost property to the federal government were never charged."  Some people have been killed by police in attempted property seizures.

Contesting a seizure is no easy matter.  You have to post a bond equal to 10 percent of your property's value, and then you have to hire a lawyer.  If the property that has been seized is everything you own, you might as well kiss it good-bye.

In 1989, with little opposition, Canada passed amendments to the Criminal Code which allow the seizure of suspected proceeds of crime without the laying of criminal charges.  In 1991, we passed the Proceeds of Crime Act, requiring financial institutions (and lawyers) to keep records of clients' cash transactions exceeding regulated limits--currently $10,000. 

While our laws do not appear to have given the same carte blanche to police officers as some U.S. laws (at least, not yet), it is frightening to examine the attitudes of those who advocate these policies.

Otto Jelinek, then Revenue Minister, dismissed the concerns of civil libertarians who warned against adopting the Americans' presumption of guilt.  "I don't care who's going to be upset," he said.  "I'll take the heat."  The heat is now off for Mr. Jelinek.   He has retired from Parliament.  The law remains.

Canadian Press reported in December, 1988 that police across Canada were "eagerly gearing up to seize tens of millions of dollars in cash, homes, cars, boats [and] planes."  An RCMP officer boasted, "Conceivably, there could be a cleaning up of property....It's conceivable that drug enforcement will not cost the taxpayer a nickel."

Michael Dambrot, director of drug prosecutions strategy for the Department of Justice, said in 1991: "One of the major complaints that the police have with the Department of Justice in this area is that we do not make anywhere near the number of restraint order and special search warrant applications that the police have asked us to make."

The Lawyers Weekly interviewed Conservative MP Bill Kempling in 1991 about the possible extension of mere record-keeping requirements to full-blown reporting requirements.  "It's coming," he said, "You never do these things all in one swoop, as you know."

In January, 1993, Canadian Press reported that "Edmonton police will do fewer high-level drug investigations unless they get a cut of the money they seize in busts," according to a police superintendent.  Municipal police forces in Ontario are also clamouring for legislative amendments to let them share in the loot.

In the big Montreal drug bust of August, 1994, one RCMP officer crowed:  "We seized their dope, their money, we froze their houses, their bank accounts.  They're just left with 25 cents for a phone call."

The unseemly rush to grab a share of drug profits makes government look more like a partner in crime than a protector against crime. 

Bad laws inevitably beget other bad laws.  The solution is to admit the original error and repeal the root of the problem, not to prop it up with increasingly totalitarian measures.

We must say no to the war on drugs before privacy, property rights and the presumption of innocence become its casualties.

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June 07, 2000