May 15th, 2017

Is The Drug Czar Obsolete?

The Trump administration is proposing to reduce the 2018 budget for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) by 95 percent from $388 million to $24 million. The explanation is that some ONDCP programs “are duplicative of other federal and state initiatives,” the New York Times reported. The initial responses – from organizations representing treatment, medical cannabis, and drug legalization interests –  reflect their respective positions. Subsequent supportive responses for the elimination have come from groups opposed to the drug war and see the ONDCP as having become a counter-productive “dinosaur.”

The ONDCP was established in 1988 to coordinate the efforts of the many agencies trying to address the problems raised by drug use. Its precursor, the Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention (SAODAP), dates to 1971 when President Nixon launched the “War on Drugs.” A dual focus has always existed on addressing supply (by interdiction) and demand (by treatment or law enforcement). Nixon’s selection of an addiction psychiatrist, Dr. Jerome Jaffe, to be its first director reflected his emphasis on treatment. In 1982, then Senator Joe Biden described the director as the “drug czar” – and it stuck.

The ONDCP is not permitted to engage in any activities intended to legalize drugs, and the balance between its supply and demand focus has shifted with changing administrations. The outgoing drug czar, Michael Botticelli – the first to be openly in recovery – was especially focused on the treatment side of its mission. Consistent with the reduced funding, the ONDCP is empty, and Tom Marino, who was proposed as its new leader, has withdrawn from consideration.

The ONDCP announcement raises the question of how the administration plans to address drug problems going forward. I was encouraged when New Jersey Governor Christie said, at an event announcing a commission to address the national opioid problem, that he regards addiction as a disease that requires treatment. DEA head Chuck Rosenberg – a holdover from the Obama administration – stated at that same event that law enforcement is only part of the answer to the problem. I will highlight in this space future developments that indicate how this vision will be realized.

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