Ex-DEA Agent: ‘I See No Downsides to Marijuana Legalization’

Published on October 12, 2016 · Last updated July 28, 2020

Arizona’s cannabis-legalization measure, Proposition 205, has faced outspoken opposition from a number of forces. The most visible is Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy, an anti-legalization group led by a pair of tough-on-crime prosecutors, Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk and Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery.

Law enforcement tends to be among the most hesitant sectors when it comes to supporting legalization. So it came as some surprise as some surprise when two retired Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) special agents came out in favor of Prop. 205. Michael Capasso, the former chief of the DEA Financial Crimes Unit, and Finn Selander, the agency’s former marijuana coordinator, announced their support on Wednesday in front of Arizona State University’s Memorial Union.

“As long as other states are still illegal, there will be a demand for black market marijuana.”

How did these longtime members of law enforcement come to change their views on cannabis? Leafly reached out to Capasso to hear out his thoughts on cannabis, the drug war, and how he came to support—and advocate for—legalization.

Leafly: Was there a specific turning point when you began to see the upsides of legalization?

Michael Capasso: My position is on marijuana—not on cocaine or heroin or methamphetamines. But yes, I agree that it should be legalized and regulated. For actual people who consume marijuana, there’s little to no collateral damage when I look at things that negatively impact society: Is he going to rob somebody? Is there going to be a secondary crime related to this drug? No, we have not seen that.

Take a look at alcohol use. We all know someone out there with a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde mentality—someone who is very docile at work, mild-mannered when not under the influence, but after a few drinks, the anger comes out, the violence, which often leads to domestic violence situations and everything else. Not to mention the effects of prolonged use of alcohol. And this is a substance that is federally regulated!

Cannabis Is Exactly 114 Times Less Toxic Than Alcohol

What more important issues do you think the DEA should focus on instead?

We need to take a very hard look at the pharmaceutical companies out there, and their contribution to the heroin epidemic. You’ll see these communities that have never been under the influence of hard drugs, but then they suffer an injury and the doctor prescribes Oxycontin or other opiates and suddenly they’re addicted. We need to cut down on the use and prescriptions of opiates. Does every owie you have require Oxycontin? How does it end up on the streets? It’s diverted at the prescription level.

Not to mention synthetic marijuana, like Spice and K2, which is causing overdoses on the streets. The DEA needs to take a harder look at nontraditional avenues. Their tactics need to change to be more effective.

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Do you think it’s likely cannabis legalization in Arizona would help undercut Mexican drug cartels?

Honestly, I don’t think so. The population of Arizona isn’t that large, and as long as other states are still illegal, there will be a demand for black market marijuana. We still continue to see a significant amount of Mexican-produced marijuana. We need to regulate it for consenting adults to decrease the impact of Mexican cartels. Marijuana continues to have one of the largest profit margins for Mexico. Cocaine is not grown in Mexico. The heroin is of poor quality. Most heroin confiscated is Colombian, and methamphetamines—despite what you might have seen in Breaking Bad—making methamphetamine is a significant process and simply not profitable enough.

Marijuana still has a high profit margin. If you can get $500 for a pound of marijuana here, take it to the Northeast and it could be worth $1,500. Plus, the logistics of transporting marijuana allow for a certain amount of acceptable loss. You can give an undocumented immigrant a backpack full of marijuana to walk across the border. They won’t do that with cocaine or heroin.

So legalization at the federal level—do you think would that be a way to impact cartels?

Legalization, it’s a domino effect. As each state gets behind regulation, more states will follow suit. It’s really just a matter of time.

As for the cartels, marijuana consumers these days are connoisseurs. The THC levels in Mexican-grown marijuana pale in comparison to the sophisticated marijuana grown hydroponically in Colorado, and consumers can definitely tell the difference. The types of marijuana sold and cultivated legally in Colorado are more potent and higher quality. It’s just like any other commodity—you flood the market with higher quality product, it cramps [competitors’] style.

In order to stop the cartels, law enforcement needs to expand their target domestically. These cartels are not a one-man band. There are thousands of people involved along the chain in the process. I guarantee you that El Chapo hasn’t seen a kilo of cocaine in a very long time.

I see no downsides to marijuana legalization. I’m not advocating that my young daughter smoke marijuana, but for consenting adults, as long as it’s not damaging anyone else, I see a lot more benefits.

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Lisa Rough
Lisa Rough
Lisa is a former associate editor at Leafly, where she specialized in legislative cannabis policy and industry topics.
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