THE DRUG WAR'SHIDDEN ECONOMIC AGENDABy Eric Blumenson and Eva Nilsen(c) 1998, The Nation, all rights reserved(republished on this website with permission)Since March 5, 1998, this page has had visitorsA number of aggrieved and hapless citizens converged on Washingtonduring the summer of 1996, invited by House Judiciary CommitteeChairman Henry Hyde to recite their misfortunes at the hands of thegovernments drug police. All had their property taken by police, thenwere let go and never prosecuted. All were innocent of wrongdoing.Remarkably, the hearing was not about corrupt cops shaking downhelpless individuals, but about the law authorizing the police to dowhat they did -- the civil forfeiture law, which transfers ownership tothe government of any property that "facilitated" a drug crime. ThisFall the Judiciary Committee completed its work, proposing a series of partial and controversial reforms now pending before Congress. The stories were sad survivors tales, each recounting a moment of unexpected financial ruin followed by years of mostly fruitless attemptsto undo it. A pilot told of how the government destroyed his air charterbusiness: the DEA seized his airplane when a drug dealer chartered it;$85,000 in legal fees later, the pilot filed for bankruptcy and became atruck driver. A landscaper testified that while on a purchasing trip, hehad been stripped of $9,000 by an airport drug interdiction unit, thensent home without a receipt, on grounds that only drug dealers carryso much cash. Congressmen also heard the tale of Mary Miller (apseudonym), a 75-year-old grandmother dispossessed of her home forthe sins of her fugitive, drug-dealing son.When events like these appear in the newspapers, they seem to beaberrations -- mishaps by some unskilled police officers, or thehandiwork of a few rogue cops. No one believes that police routinelyawait the chance to harass and impoverish elderly ladies like Mrs.Miller. Yet the 20 police who confronted Mrs. Miller were not keystonecops; they included not only local police officers, but also agents fromthe sheriffs office, the U.S. Marshals Service, the FBI and the IRS. Theseofficers were probably much less concerned with harassing Mrs. Millerthan with her property. By their presence at the seizure, the localagencies and the Justice Department each acquired a claim to a shareof the house. Mrs. Miller was on the wrong side of a police funding raid,and since 1984, many thousands of other Americans have been aswell.