Follow the Money: How Former Anti-Drug Officials Ridiculously Still Say Pot Is Dangerous in Order to Make a Lot of Cash
When eight former DEA chiefs signed a letter to US Attorney General Eric Holder earlier this month, demanding that the feds crack down on Washington and Colorado, the states which voted last November to legalize marijuana, there was more than just drug-war ideology at stake. There was money.
Two of the elder drug warriors, Peter Bensinger (DEA chief, 1976–1981) and Robert DuPont (White House drug chief, 1973–1977), run a corporate drug-testing business. Their employee-assistance company, Bensinger, DuPont & Associates, the sixth largest in the nation, holds the pee stick for some 10 million employees around the US. Their clients have included the biggest players in industry and government: Kraft Foods, American Airlines, Johnson & Johnson, the Federal Aviation Administration and even the Justice Department itself.
“These are not just old drug war architects pushing a drug war model they’ve pushed for 40 years,” says Brian Vicente, a Denver lawyer and co-author of Colorado’s Proposition 64, which legalized marijuana for recreational use. “These guys are asking Eric Holder to pursue prohibition policies that line their own pockets.”
Bensinger and DuPont both deny money is their motive. “It’s true we might benefit from keeping marijuana illegal,” says DuPont. But he argues it's equally true that marijuana legalization could benefit his bottom line, putting forth the old drug-war line that legalization would create more users. “The more success legalization has, the better it is for our business because they are creating a problem for employers,” he says. “That would be smart for us.” DuPont also points out that only 15% of their business is made up of training employers to detect the warning signs of drug and alcohol abuse and supplying third-party testing. But both men are involved in industry-controlled lobbying groups like the Drug & Alcohol Industry Testing Association, which backed the Drug Testing Integrity Act of 2008, outlawing products that help people beat drug tests and keeping their business healthy.
By inserting themselves into the legal-pot debate, Bensinger, DuPont and other drug warriors benefit by promoting their own legacies and bolstering their own business, lobbying and consulting interests—even in the face of an increasingly skeptical public. A 2011 Gallup survey showed that half of Americans favor legalizing weed. “This letter that they signed is their attempt to once again become relevant within the public policy debate that has largely turned its back on such archaic viewpoints,” says Paul Armentano, deputy director of the pro-marijuana nonprofit, National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws ( NORML).
The time-honored revolving door between government and business swings fast and often. It can be straightforward, like the appointment of banking behemoth Goldman Sachs' alumni as economic policymakers by recent presidential administrations. But when it comes to the drug war, the family tree is more like a thicket of interests among law enforcement, federal and state prisons, pharmaceutical giants, drug testers and drug treatment programs—all with an economic stake in keeping pot illegal.
Bensinger and DuPont are longtime allies of the marijuana prohibition group that sent the letter to Holder, Save Our Society from Drugs ( SOS), which was founded by Mel Sembler, a Florida shopping-mall magnate, and his wife, Betty. The Semblers also founded Straight Inc.—a drug-treatment program that used sleep deprivation, beatings and psychological abuse to treat 10,000 teenage patients, in nine states, from 1976 to 1993, at $1,400 a month plus a $1,600 per patient evaluation fee, raking in millions. Straight was shut down after investigations in state after state corroborated the hundreds of complaints. But the Semblers, longtime major Republican Party fundraisers, retain their influence as behind-the-scenes bankrollers of the anti-drug faction.