The Obama administration was perhaps the closest presidential ally the cannabis community has ever had. But his policies were mostly indifferent towards legalization, despite small steps to reduce the Justice Department and the DEA’s efforts towards marijuana enforcement. At best, the cannabis community could rely on the administration to turn a blind eye.
But it turns out the Office of National Drug Control Policy felt differently. This office serves as the home of the nation’s “drug czar.” Unlike the DEA, which enforces laws regarding drugs, the ONDCP helps the government decide on those laws. former deputy director of the ONDCP, A. Thomas McLellan, who worked during Obama’s first term in office reported,
“ONDCP was in favor of decriminalizing but not legalizing.”
A law passed in 1988 officially launched the ONDCP and stated, “the legalization of illegal drugs is an unconscionable surrender in the war on drugs.” When the office needed to be reauthorized, additional language was added that required those working for the ONDCP to “oppose any attempt to legalize” cannabis, and not use any federal funding to research the scenario of legalization. Because of this directive, those working for the ONDCP under Obama felt they couldn’t openly discuss their views on legalization, despite working in a government office whose directive is to advise and shape drug policy.
“It forced the office to take a policy position that it may or may not agree to,” said Michael Botticelli, former director of the ONDCP. “[It] hamstrings you into a policy position that might be the policy of the day but that might change.”
Those few words directing the ONDCP to disregard cannabis legalization hurt the legitimacy of the office and sent mixed signals to cannabis activists. One former staffer said the language, “makes it look like the office’s primary purpose is to oppose marijuana.”
“The existence of that statute, that prohibition, has been something that our movement has held up to criticize ONDCP. Taking that off the table would be good for us and it would also be good for them. … It makes them look political in ways that their scientists probably don’t want to be.”
An attempt was made to remove language that was stifling the ONDCP, and Botticelli had to work around the language as well as his own stance when fielding questions about the bill. When the bill failed, Botticelli and his office continued to work around the policy itself by supporting drug rehabilitation and awareness regarding drug addiction, a push towards making drug abuse a medical condition rather than a criminal one.
“We can’t arrest and incarcerate addiction out of people,” Botticelli said during a “60 Minutes” interview in 2015.
“Not only do I think it’s really inhumane, but it’s ineffective and it cost us billions upon billions of dollars to keep doing this.”
Botticelli then reinforced this view when the District of Columbia pushed for legalization. He said,
“I might not agree about legalization, but I do agree with our own ability to spend our own money the way that we want to.”
But this is as far as the ONDCP went. Drug legalization is a political issue that’s laced with moral judgement and false data, and the lawmakers responsible for funding his office were also responsible for the failed bill that would have allowed the ONDCP to truly serve their purpose.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration seems to be reactivating old policies that have proven ineffective against substance abuse. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has called upon federal prosecutors to return to a “tough on crime” approach towards sentencing. “It seems like we are moving backwards instead of forward,” said Botticelli. “And to a position that I think doesn’t have a lot of science and evidence. We’ve tried that approach for a very long time, and it doesn’t seem to really have made a significant difference.”