When I began working as a research assistant at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) in 2012 while pursuing a master’s degree, the office was standing astride two identities, unsure of which to embrace.
On the one hand, there was the old ONDCP—the ONDCP that served as the White House’s enforcer in the War on Drugs and helped perpetuate the kind of drug policy that has filled our nation’s prisons with non-violent people, disproportionately people of color, and spurned public health approaches for ones that lean hard on law enforcement. On the other was a new ONDCP—one that worked to embrace evidence-based and harm reductionist drug policy as much as possible, albeit within the restrictive framework created by Congress.
By the time I left ONDCP in May 2013, it was clear to me that the Office had chosen to embrace the identity that saw substance use as a public health matter, not a criminal one. I was fortunate enough to do research and analysis on ONDCP’s work around medication-assisted treatment; Medicaid expansion; Affordable Care Act implementation; and Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT). While ONDCP’s policies on a number of issues were far from ideal, it was evident that for the moment, they were moving in the right direction.
I think it’s safe to say that the guarded optimism of people like me has proven misplaced.
So during my time there and for several years after leaving—up until the end of President Obama’s time in the White House—I routinely defended many of the ONDCP’s actions and positions. After I joined an AIDS advocacy organization in 2016, I did this with friends and colleagues who dedicate their lives to the intertwined causes of HIV/AIDS and drug-user advocacy.
Serving as a self-appointed defender of an organization long viewed as the point guard in the federal government’s War on Drugs is an unenviable task. It has often proved futile in the face of the lived experience of advocates with no earthly reason to trust the executive branch’s stance.
Yet because I had seen for myself a genuine commitment to harm reductionist principles and an approach to drug misuse firmly rooted in a public health framework within the ONDCP’s walls, I persevered.
Under the leadership of Michael Botticelli—a man with well over two decades of experience in substance use disorder, public health policy and administration prior to appointment—ONDCP vigorously championed widespread access to medication-assisted treatments like methadone and buprenorphine, and supported both syringe access programs to prevent the spread of infectious diseases and the availability of naloxone for opioid overdose reversal.
I realize that many of you may object to this characterization. Roughly half of ONDCP, even then, dedicated itself to the sorts of supply-reduction activities that have been the hallmark of the War on Drugs. But, so my reasoning went, their influence over the Office’s mission and direction was waning, and the good being done by those on the demand reduction side of the coin outweighed any of the harms being done.
And, while ONDCP was prohibited by Congress from ever endorsing the legalization of any illicit substance and I never heard anyone there speak openly of such a thing, there were Obama-era ONDCP staffers who privately considered pushing for the decriminalization of marijuana. Surely, I thought, it would only be a matter of time before the tides of public opinion and common sense pushed the federal government as a whole, and ONDCP in particular, away from antiquated, moralistic and punitive approaches.
Ignorance, Arrogance and Fecklessness
Well, after the kleptocratic nightmare that has been the Trump presidency so far, I think it’s safe to say that the guarded optimism of people like me has proven misplaced.
Right now, in the midst of an opioid crisis that was the primary driver in an estimated 72,000 overdose deaths in 2017, President Trump and his political appointees have displayed a staggering combination of ignorance, arrogance and fecklessness with regards to drug policy that shows no signs of abating. Whether it’s trying to inflate the budget of the DEA, calling for giving drug dealers the death penalty, or working to systematically dismantle the health care safety net and take away protections for people with pre-existing conditions, the Trump administration has systematically added fuel to the fire of the opioid crisis.
This dead zone is populated by cast-offs and rejects from other corners of the Trump administration.
Developments like these, in demonstrating the power of the executive branch to trample over public health and progress, have convinced me that the ONDCP should be dissolved, or at least fundamentally altered.
It has been 20 months since Donald Trump was sworn into office and we still do not have a Senate-confirmed director of the ONDCP—popularly known as the “Drug Czar.” I’m not concerned about this. Because it’s arguable that we no longer have an Office of National Drug Control Policy—rather, just a physical space where that Office used to be.
This dead zone is populated by cast-offs and rejects from other corners of the Trump administration, for whom the president no longer has a use, but who are in possession of knowledge he would rather not see released.
ONDCP’s current acting director is Jim Carroll, a former counsel at the Ford Motor Company with almost no experience in drug policy who was assigned to lead ONDCP after being deemed a failure as White House deputy chief of staff. At around the same time Carroll was being reassigned, two high-level staffers for Tom Price, the now-disgraced former director of Health and Human Services, were moved there too: Price’s former director of communications at HHS, Charmaine Yoest, and his former chief of staff, Kristin Skrzycki, both found jobs at ONDCP.
When not serving as a safe haven for undesirable appointees from elsewhere in the Trump administration, ONDCP has been used to provide spoils for unqualified 20-somethings who worked on Trump’s campaign. Take Taylor Weyeneth, a 23-year old former Trump campaign worker who managed to finagle himself into the role of ONDCP deputy chief of staff.
Unsurprisingly, a large number of career staff at ONDCP have left in the last year-and-a-half.
With ONDCP’s role having been relegated in these ways, the President’s opioid response is being led by Kellyanne Conway, a woman with no experience in public health or substance use policy who said earlier this year that kids could avoid addiction by eating ice cream and french fries.
The Department of Justice, meanwhile, is being helmed by a mendacious little drug warrior in Jeff Sessions, a man who once said that “good people don’t smoke marijuana” and who, when he isn’t demonizing drug users, is actively working to dismantle our nation’s healthcare infrastructure and reduce access to substance use disorder treatment and prevention services.
Having failed to dismantle ONDCP by trying to cut the Office’s funding by 95 percent in both his Fiscal Year 2017 and 2018 budgets, the Trump administration did what they viewed as the next best thing by turning ONDCP into a husk of its former self, with no real responsibility beyond working with other federal agencies to try and convince Trump himself that marijuana is evil.
This latest effort, dubbed the Marijuana Policy Coordination Committee, has ONDCP asking 14 federal agencies and the Drug Enforcement Administration to submit all of the negative data and stories they can find about marijuana use to combat what they view as the emergence of a dangerously pro-pot narrative among the general public. They will then present Trump with a compelling case for joining his attorney general in strict opposition to legalization or decriminalization.
In an ideal world, ONDCP would be used to provide the president of the United States with a vehicle for promoting a coherent vision to address drug-related problems and implement a public-health framework. In reality, the ONDCP has been repurposed as a retirement home for disgraced staffers, which doubles as an anti-pot propaganda shop.
Photo: ONDCP acting director Jim Carroll, a former counsel at the Ford Motor Company [via Washington Examiner]
[Correction: The author worked at the ONDCP in 2012 and 2013 as an unpaid research assistant while pursuing a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Maryland-Baltimore. An earlier version of the headline incorrectly suggested that he was a paid employee.]