Fighting in the Drug War Room

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Leaked documents recently revealed that the Trump administration plans to reduce funding for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) by 95 percent—from $388 million to $24 million. This would result in the Drug Czar’s office losing 33 employees and the elimination of grants for High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas programs, as well as the Drug Free Communities Support program.

Drug warriors are upset. The acting director of ONDCP called the proposed cuts “heartbreaking.”

The New York Times reports that Kevin Sabet, one of the most prominent opponents of marijuana’s legalization, said of the proposal: “It felt like a sucker punch in the face… This is a time when we have one of the largest opioid epidemics in history and the rise of a new industry of people selling pot candy to kids.”

Keith Humphreys, a Stanford University psychiatry professor told the Washington Post that ONDCP improves U.S. policy three ways.

ONDCP is the only place with detailed knowledge of the nation’s drug problems. It increases the speed at which effective programs can be implemented nationally. And finally, and this has always been the agency’s official mission, ONDCP coordinates federal policy as it is carried out by numerous federal agencies. This function reduces conflict between agencies. But also, Humphreys explained, this “policy coordination also means helping Congress fulfill its constitutional duty of holding the president accountable. If drug policy responsibility is scattered across a dozen departments, Congress loses the ability to monitor progress or lack thereof.”

ONDCP, though, is also seen as an agency in need of reform.

Grant Smith, from the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), told the New York Times that the grant programs slated for elimination “are a phenomenal waste of money that contribute to the incarceration and stigmatization of drug users.”

In response to criticism that the proposed cuts contradict President Trump’s commitment to fight the opioid epidemic, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told Fox News that “nothing is finalized” and that “I would always tell people, judge President Trump by his actions, not leaked documents and hypotheticals. And the actual actions of this president is a total commitment to this epidemic across this country.”

The White House is also putting together a commission to study the opioid crises, to be chaired by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

Trump wants to massively reduce the size of the federal bureaucracy, is resistant to congressional oversight and favors increasing police and law enforcement budgets at the expense of social programs. It makes perfect sense, then, to get rid of ONDCP.

The Drug Czar’s office was created in the late 1980s in response to political pressure from anti-drug parents’ groups and other supporters of the War on Drugs. They wanted an advocate at the highest level of government, not just to give the anti-drug fight a voice, but also to protect and expand funding for local anti-drug efforts. The result was upgrading the president’s advisor on drug policy issues to the head of a cabinet-level agency.

Another consequence of the creation of ONDCP was budgetary linkage between the supply side and demand side of anti-drug policies.

In other words, the drug war budget became reviewed in ways that compared law enforcement funding with funding for social programs for education, prevention and rehabilitation. Funding the drug war became a zero sum competition between law enforcement and social programs, and frequently, the popularity of social programs amounted to less money for law enforcement.

Getting rid of ONDCP provides the Trump Administration with more opportunities to increase support and funding for the police and to decrease funding for social programs—and it allows them to do so with less accountability and oversight. In other words, defunding ONDCP amounts to a law enforcement coup, in which they regain the upper hand in fighting the drug war the way they always have—by arresting people.

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