Advocates are in a tizzy over a report that the White House has included the drug czar’s office in a list of agencies it is considering proposing for elimination.
The New York Times obtained an internal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) memo that put the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) alongside a host of other agencies that Republicans have long sought to cut such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Legal Services Corporation, AmeriCorps and the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities.
Unlike the other programs listed in the leaked Trump administration document, ONDCP hasn’t historically been seen as a target for elimination by the mainstream political right. The closest approximation is when the Republican Study Committee, a group of ardent conservatives in the U.S. House of Representatives, proposed gutting ONDCP’s anti-drug ad campaign, though not the agency as a whole.
In 2005, under the chairmanship of Mike Pence, now the vice president, the group wrote:
“There is no solid evidence that media campaigns are effective in either preventing or reducing the use of illegal drugs. Savings: $1.3 billion over ten years ($631 million over five years)”
While ONDCP’s inclusion in the list of agencies just means that the administration is considering proposing its elimination, Mick Mulvaney, OMB’s new director, regularly voted in support of marijuana policy reform amendments as a congressman, so it isn’t totally out of the question that it could happen. But because the office’s mandate is enshrined by statute, its abolishment would have to be approved by Congress.
Alan Rappeport, the Times reporter who broke the story with his colleague Sharon LaFreniere, told MassRoots in an email that there was no explanatory language in the OMB document justifying the proposed cut, just that its name was listed amongst other programs.
Reaction to the ONDCP’s possible elimination has been mixed among drug policy reform advocates.
“The budget savings are tiny, but the office works actively to harm our people and our justice system,” tweeted Jason Kuznicki of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. “It should be abolished.”
But Steve Rolles of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation said that ONDCP “needs reform and principled leadership, not abolition. A national coordinating agency remains key for effective policy and reform.”
Alluding to the agency’s shifts toward a more health-oriented strategy under the Obama administration (including by devoting more resources toward demand reduction strategies than supply reduction efforts for the first time in decades), Rolles said, “Concern is that axing ONDCP signals the end of the limited progress they’ve made recently. It definitely doesn’t mean an end of the drug war.”
Some marijuana policy reformers expressed concern that if ONDCP were gutted, the enforcement-focused Department of Justice might take more ownership in setting drug policies, while others expressed hope that the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) would end up with more clout. While NIDA hasn’t exactly been friendly to most reform efforts, it is seen as more health- and research-focused than are Justice Department agencies such as the DEA.
But cops don’t necessarily support ending ONDCP’s leadership, either. The Fraternal Order of Police expressed its “deep concern” about the possible elimination of the office in a letter to President Trump. “Our nation is currently facing an epidemic of opioid-related deaths — drugs now kill more people than gunshot wounds and car crashes,” Chuck Canterbury, the group’s national president, wrote. “The ONDCP plays a vital role in coordinating a national strategy to fight drug trafficking and reduce illegal drug use.”
Sen. Maggie Hassan, a New Hampshire Democrat who has seen increased drug misuse problems in her state in recent years, tweeted,” Eliminating the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy isn’t fiscally responsible. It’s dangerous.”
One person likely to be especially interested in ONDCP’s fate is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R).
Christie and Trump reportedly discussed drug policy over lunch last week. Days later, the New York Post reported that he told his staff he is taking a White House job, but aides to the governor and president quickly shot it down as a rumor. However, it was suggested that Christie could instead be in the running to take part in an “independent outside opioids task force,” something that might be needed if ONDCP is in fact eliminated.
Obama drug czar Michael Botticelli resigned at the end of that administration. In a recent interview, he said that the Trump administration hasn’t asked for his advice. “And we had no contact with anyone on the Trump transition team before I left,” he said. “It’s giving me and other people pause about to what extent this administration considers this a priority.”
But last week, Acting Director ONDCP Kemp Chester sent an email to stakeholders saying that the office is “still working hard” with Trump’s team to “develop his drug policy framework for our Nation going forward.”
And Politico recently reported that Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, “has taken ownership of opioid-abuse and veterans affairs, a portfolio that Trump cares deeply about.”
Meanwhile, ONDCP.gov redirects to a blank placeholder page, and an anonymous website called ONDCP Watch has a running counter of how long the agency has been offline, which is since Trump took the oath of office on January 20.