Rep. Tom Marino (R-Penn.) announced yesterday that he won't be the first drug czar of the Trump era. "Due to a critical illness in my family, I have, with regret and the utmost respect, informed the White House that I must withdraw my name from consideration for Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy," Marino said in a statement.
Who will Trump nominate in his stead? It might not matter. Politico's Dan Diamond reports that Trump plans to reduce the agency's budget by 95 percent:
White House budget calls for 95% funding cut, zeroing out high-intensity drug trafficking and drug-free communities support programs.— Dan Diamond (@ddiamond) May 5, 2017
Only Congress can abolish the Office of National Drug Control Policy, but Trump can certainly slash its budget. And while Diamond's tweets suggests that the ONDCP plays a pivotal role in addressing the opioid crisis, there are plenty of actual harm reduction advocates who would be happy to see the agency close up shop. (Update: Diamond has the full numbers out in a piece at Politico. The ONDCP's budget would decrease from $388 million to $24 million; the high-intensity drug-trafficking program and drug-free communities support program would be "zeroed out completely"; and the 70-person staff could be reduced by as many as 33 positions.)
"If Trump's volunteering to abolish the office, I say, 'Go for it,'" Ethan Nadelmann told Pacific Standard in February (the first time we heard rumors of the agency's demise).
The former executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, Nadelmann was advocating medication-assisted therapy, maintenance doses of heroin, clean needle exchanges, and safe injection facilities long before Obama's first drug czar conceded that America could not arrest its way out of the drug problem. Nadelmann continued to call for those evidence-based, life-saving policies after the federal government continued trying exactly what it says it can't successfully do. And you know what? He's likely right that no Trump appointee will embrace meaningful drug policy reform.
Michael Botticelli, Obama's last drug czar, came close. He supported expanding access to naloxone, the overdose-reversal drug, but was reactionary on marijuana. Thus far, Trump's vision for American drug policy makes Michael Botticelli look like Tommy Chong. Marino floated putting drug offenders in "hospital-slash-prison." Gov. Chris Christie, who Trump appointed to head up a special commission on opioids, recently said that marijuana reformers want to "poison our kids" for "blood money." And then there's Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines. In December, Trump declared that Duterte, who has overseen thousands of extrajudicial murders of drug users and sellers, was fighting the drug war the "right way." He's since invited Duterte to visit the U.S.
Diamond's report this morning, like the Standard's story from February, is pegged to White House documents. Normally, smoke means fire. But on the ONDCP question, I can't tell whether the smoke is emanating from a wastebasket or a dumpster. The agency's website is still blank. Current employees are largely unreachable (though welcome to email me!). Former ONDCP employees have told me their contacts at the agency have gone silent. But you know what federal agency with drug policy ramifications is not dormant? The Justice Department.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been touring the country promoting increased enforcement and belitting the effectiveness of treatment. The DEA is seeking to build its own corps of prosecutors separate from the U.S. Attorney system. The Justice Department is staffing up with tough-on-crime types who plan to roll back Attorney General Eric Holder's Smart on Crime initiative, which actually did reduce the federal prison population and the use of mandatory minimums for most drug (but not all) drugs.
In the grand scheme of the drug war, who might occupy the ONDCP's bully pulpit matters less than the army Sessions is building.