Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) says the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) has assured him that an upcoming report on marijuana legalization "will be completely objective and dispassionate." That claim is hard to take seriously, since it contradicts the ONDCP's statutory mandate to oppose marijuana legalization by any means necessary.
BuzzFeed reported in August that the ONDCP was coordinating an effort to collect "data demonstrating the most significant negative trends" that have followed marijuana legalization in states such as Colorado, with an eye toward illustrating the "threats" posed by that policy. That effort, which reportedly involves the Drug Enforcement Administration and 14 other federal agencies, seems to be aimed at encouraging President Donald Trump to reconsider his avowed commitment to marijuana federalism.
In an August 30 letter to ONDCP Acting Director James Carroll, Bennet expressed concern that the Trump administration is "cherry-picking data to support pre-ordained and misinformed conclusions on marijuana." Carroll responded on September 21. "I assure you that the ONDCP seeks all perspectives, positive or negative, when formulating Administration policy," Carroll wrote, according to a press release Bennet posted this week. "You have my full and firm commitment that ONDCP will be completely objective and dispassionate in collecting all relevant facts and peer-reviewed scientific research on all drugs, including marijuana."
That promise leaves open the possibility that the ONDCP will be less than completely objective and dispassionate in presenting the relevant facts. Such evenhandedness would be hard to reconcile with a requirement imposed by the ONDCP Reauthorization Act of 1998, which Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed two years after California became the first state to legalize marijuana for medical use. The provision, codified under 21 USC 1703, says the ONDCP director "shall ensure that no Federal funds appropriated to the Office of National Drug Control Policy shall be expended for any study or contract relating to the legalization (for a medical use or any other use) of a substance listed in schedule I of section 202 of the Controlled Substances Act" and "take such actions as necessary to oppose any attempt to legalize the use of a substance (in any form) that…is listed in schedule I" and "has not been approved for use for medical purposes by the Food and Drug Administration."
Suppose the ONDCP's "completely objective and dispassionate" research finds that marijuana legalization is working out pretty well. On the face of it, the agency would be legally obligated to obscure that fact. Even if a neutral presentation did not run afoul of the command not to use federal funds in support of legalization, it surely would violate the ONDCP's duty to oppose legalization with whatever "actions" are "necessary." That command might even require outright fabrication, assuming that lying would be an effective way to prevent marijuana legalization.
More likely, the product of the ONDCP's efforts will resemble the reports on marijuana legalization in Colorado from the ONDCP-supported Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. That task force poses as a dispassionate collector of facts but is committed to the position that legalization was a huge mistake, and every piece of information it presents is aimed at supporting that predetermined conclusion. Even when the task force does not simply make stuff up, it filters and slants the evidence to play up the purported costs of legalization while ignoring the benefits. We should expect nothing less from the ONDCP, which is legally required to mislead the public.