The Office of National Drug Control Policy Is on the Chopping Block Again. Here's Why That's Not a Bad Thing.

People who want to keep the drug czar's office running can't come up with a good reason why.


ONDCP-funded ads are good for memes and little else. Photo courtesy of U.S. taxpayers

President Donald Trump is poised yet again to slash the budget of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), Politico reports.

The plan reportedly involves moving the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) grant to the Department of Justice (DOJ), and moving the Drug Free Communities grant to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). That reshuffling makes sense (even if the programs themselves don't) as the DEA has 600 agents working on HIDTA and HHS reviews applications for Drug Free Communities. Some ONDCP staff would remain in place to consult the White House, which seems redundant in light of the "expertise" provided by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Kellyanne Conway. (Conway was recently promoted from talking head to leader of the White House Opioid Crisis Team, or whatever it's officially called.)

Yet for some reason, all the reporting I've seen on this story suggests that allowing specialized agencies to absorb the ONDCP's programs would lead to some sort of national drug abuse crisis, which we've thus far averted thanks to the ONDCP's effectiveness and vigilance. None of these articles have mentioned the myriad ways in which the ONDCP has been downright harmful. The office has supported civil asset forfeiture, played games with the data it collects, denied that marijuana has medical uses, funded treatment programs that don't work, encouraged the expansion of workplace drug testing, and held up 1980s agitprop as a model for drug education—and that's just during the Obama administration.

Those issues aside, let's look at the objections raised in the Politico piece:

  • Kevin Sabet, a prominent anti-marijuana activist and former ONDCP staffer, told Politico that moving the grants out of the ONDCP "reduces the prominence of these programs and puts them in the bowels of agencies that have different priorities." I can't disprove the prominence claim any more than ONDCP preservationists can do the opposite, but the priorities claim is spurious. The Department of Justice—particularly under Sessions—is clearly dedicated to prosecuting drug crimes and has always needed the help of state and local law enforcement to do so. HHS, meanwhile, is clearly committed to encouraging and funding drug treatment at the state and local levels.
  • Sabet also claims that the association with ONDCP "elevates the importance of these programs. It makes them more visible on the state and local level because it's not just another program from DOJ or HHS. It's a program that has the White House's signature on it." Call me a cynic, but I have a hard time believing that grant applicants will stop asking for federal money just because the money doesn't come with a White House seal.
  • Former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (a board member of Sabet's anti-marijuana group, Project SAM) says moving the grants "guts the two main purposes of ONDCP" and "really undermines the mission." This is the only Kennedy quote in the piece; we never hear an argument for his position.
  • David Kelley, who works with HIDTA, says moving it into DOJ would mean "state law enforcement voices would be lost." I'm very curious to learn what his concern here is, beyond the likelihood that a change in the coalitional power balance will diminish the heft of local cops (who have used HIDTA powers to settle personal vendettas). I have no idea why this is supposed to be bad. My reading of Kelley's claim is that his people run a fiefdom and they'd prefer to keep running it.

The ONDCP is not completely useless. The annual budget request it submits provides the simplest breakdown of where federal drug money goes. (Spoiler alert: We always spend more on enforcement than treatment or prevention.) And Drug Czar Michael Botticelli was a tireless advocate of non-carceral responses to the opioid crisis, including wider distribution of overdose-reversal drugs and expanded access to medication-assisted therapies like methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone. But legalizing over-the-counter naloxone is a state-level decision, and HHS determines treatment regulations for medication-assisted therapies. Anyway, every state in the country now has experts in its local and statewide health departments who know what they can and should do to reduce opioid overdoses (not that they all do those things). And as smart as Botticelli was on treatment, the ONDCP never saw fit to insist that evidence-based programs be offered to the godforsaken souls in Bureau of Prisons custody.

Insofar as harm reduction strategies need federal advocates, they have them in Food and Drug Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, National Institute on Drug Abuse Director Nora Volkow, and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administrator Elinore F. McCance-Katz. Those three might not carry quite the heft of someone who goes by the title "czar," but that says more about America's fetish for militarizing drug policy than it does about the persuasion skills or policy knowledge of the (mostly) former law enforcement officials who have held the title.

Let it shrivel.