End of the Drug Czar? Trump Proposes Huge Cuts to White House Drug Office

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Donald Trump may be following through on a campaign promise more quickly and easily than building a wall or removing millions’ of Americans’ healthcare. And this is one Trump promise that drug-reform advocates can applaud.

Trump wants to slash funding for the office of the national “drug czar” by 95 percent, according to a budget document obtained by news media on Friday and first reported by POLITICO.

If the plan floated by the Office of Budget Management (MOB) goes through, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP)—a White House-level office created during the Ronald Reagan, “Just Say No” 1980s, responsible for advising the president on anti-drug efforts and coordinating the various other federal agencies working on the issue—would see its budget cut from $388 million to $24 million. The national “High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area” initiatives and the Drug-Free Communities grants would be completely eliminated and would cut 33 of the office’s 70 full-time jobs.

Eliminating ONDCP must still be approved by Congress, and in an internal e-mail from interim ONDCP director Rich Baum obtained by POLITICO, Baum told his staff that he would work to stave off at least some of the cuts. The White House did not respond to a request for comment from U.S. News, but the news of ONDCP’s proposed gutting marks yet another 180-degree turn from the Trump administration.

During the campaign, Trump promised to do away with the agency as another example of burdensome, excessive government efforts. After taking office and appointing hardline drug warriors like Attorney General Jeff Sessions into key positions, Trump appears to have had a change of heart. Now, for whatever reason—Trump has not explained his peripatetic actions on this issue—he’s returned to his campaign rhetoric.

ONDCP is at least nominally “in charge” of national-level strategy for combating the opiate crisis. Supporters of the agency say that its near-elimination—at a time when deaths from drug overdoses are surpassing deaths from HIV/AIDS at that crisis’s peak—is a recipe for disaster.

But as the OMB office pointed out in its budget memo, much of the agency’s role is also performed by other Cabinet-level agencies, including the Justice Department and Health and Human Services. And there’s an argument to be made that ONDCP was also possibly the worst possible government agency to be involved with solving the opiate crisis, on any level.

Marijuana will not be a panacea for America’s deep and broad opiate problem, but—study after study has shown that cannabis is suitable to treat chronic pain and that opiate use decreases where cannabis is available (and, given the choice, at least some patients prescribed opiates prefer cannabis)—it absolutely has a role.

And by law, ONDCP is prohibited from pursuing this avenue. The office is required, by act of Congress, to oppose any effort to legalize or weaken draconian controls on marijuana.

The ONDCP is firmly rooted in Reagan-era drug-war hysteria–and was planted there with help from Democrats. It was then-Sen. Joe Biden who coined the term “drug czar” in 1982–and, when Democratic leaders like President Bill Clinton ramped up penalties for low-level, non-violent drug offenses and increased enforcement that resulted in skyrocketing arrests and incarceration rates, ONDCP was there to lead the way.

More recently, ONDCP has been responsible for some of the more damaging anti-drug propaganda passed off as fact. A report from the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area was full of statements about Colorado’s marijuana legalization experiment that were contradicted by the state’s own data—yet made their way into the talking points and op-eds of police chiefs and other drug war proponents across the country.

There was also speculation that ONDCP would be seconded to another agency in order to ramp up the drug war, as key Trump administration officials including Sessions and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the chair of a national commission tasked with solving the opiate crisis, have suggested.

“If that was the plan for ONDCP, we would rather see it eliminated,” said Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs with the Drug Policy Alliance, in a statement released Friday. “The HIDTA and Drug Free Communities grant programs, run by ONDCP, are a phenomenal waste of money that contribute to the incarceration and stigmatization of drug users, so their elimination is a welcome move.”

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