Does the Law Require the Drug Czar To Lie About Legalization?

The Office of National Drug Control Policy is required to fight marijuana legalization by any means necessary, even if it is working out well so far.


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 office was coordinating the collection of "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. The effort, which reportedly involved the Drug Enforcement Administration and 14 other federal agencies, seemed to be aimed at encouraging President Donald Trump to reconsider his promise to let states go their own way on marijuana.

In an August 30 letter to ONDCP Acting Director James Carroll, Bennet expressed concern that the Trump administration was "cherry-picking data to support pre-ordained and misinformed conclusions on marijuana."

"I assure you that the ONDCP seeks all perspectives, positive or negative, when formulating Administration policy," Carroll responded, according to Bennet. "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."

Such evenhandedness would be hard to reconcile with a requirement imposed by the ONDCP Reauthorization Act of 1998, which Congress passed two years after California became the first state to legalize marijuana for medical use. The provision says the director of that office shall "take such actions as necessary to oppose any attempt to legalize the use of a substance" that is listed in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act—as marijuana is—unless the Food and Drug Administration has approved it for medical purposes.

Suppose the ONDCP's research finds that marijuana legalization is working out pretty well. On the face of it, the agency would be legally obliged to obscure that fact.

The product of the office's current efforts probably will resemble the annual reports from the ONDCP-supported Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force. That group 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.