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52,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2015, yet the White House budget office just placed the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) on a list of federal agencies and programs to be potentially axed. Drug overdoses now kill more people in the United States than guns or car accidents and are the leading cause of unintentional death in the United States. Eliminating ONDCP would exacerbate the opioid epidemic causing even more preventable deaths. As a person in long-term recovery serving as the executive director of an addiction treatment center on a college campus, this issue is close to my heart.
The mission of ONDCP is to reduce drug use and its consequences by promoting prevention, treatment, and recovery, and by reducing the supply of drugs. President Obama appointed Michael Botticelli to lead the office as “drug czar” but we referred to him as the “recovery czar,” because he was open about his own recovery and helped shift the office’s policies toward treating addiction as a health condition rather than a moral failing.
I had the honor of serving as an intern at ONDCP during my final year of law school and saw first hand the impact the office had on promoting recovery and reducing the discrimination and stigma surrounding addiction. We encouraged federal agencies, contractors, and non-governmental organizations to utilize accurate language and not define people by their addiction. The office had “got naloxone?” bumper stickers posted, encouraging access to naloxone, which is a harmless drug that saves lives by reversing opioid overdoses. We helped positively shift public perception, thereby increasing compassion, decreasing stigma, and encouraging people to seek treatment.
The office took a “smart on crime” approach to drug policy, acknowledging that the traditional War on Drugs approach has proven wildly ineffective. Each year, ONDCP distributes millions of dollars in federal grant money to areas hit hardest by drugs. In August 2015, ONDCP announced $13.4 million in funding for High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas. This money was used both for supply reduction and prevention. 13.4 million dollars is a drop in the bucket for the federal government, but often means the difference between life and death for the people in the communities receiving these funds.
As the tip of the spear for national drug control policy, ONDCP develops and implements national drug control strategy and coordinates collaboration between law enforcement and public health entities within and beyond the federal government. No other federal agency has this essential mandate. ONDCP facilitates cooperation between local, state, and federal entities that without ONDCP involvement would be seriously hampered or nonexistent. As a White House component, ONDCP’s voice and policies carry weight in ways that non Executive Office of the President entities do not. ONDCP also develops the federal drug control budget, overseeing and approving the drug policy related components of a wide range of federal agencies’ budgets, from the Department of Defense and the Drug Enforcement Agency to HHS and HUD.
Under directors Botticelli and Gil Kerlikowski, strong emphasis was placed on addressing the opioid epidemic by helping people achieve and sustain long-term recovery. For the first time in the office’s history, President Obama’s 2017 drug control budget funded demand reduction efforts at a similar level as supply reduction efforts. Supply reduction had always been more heavily funded. This demonstrated acceptance that the country cannot arrest its way out of a drug epidemic and that a fundamental reallocation of resources was warranted.
The cost of continuing to operate ONDCP pales in comparison to the cost of addiction on our society, which stands at hundreds of billions of dollars per year. At a time when our nation is losing hundreds of people per day to a drug epidemic, eliminating ONDCP is unconscionable.
If the administration’s goal is to save money by trimming fat, the office addressing the nation’s drug epidemic is the wrong place to do so. People suffering from addiction and people in recovery are not bad people. We have a treatable health condition and we are worth saving. We do recover.
Christopher Poulos is the executive director of Life of Purpose Treatment at the University of North Texas. He has served at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and The Sentencing Project. Poulos has advised United States Senator Angus KingAngus KingUnder pressure, Dems hold back Gorsuch support The Hill’s Whip List: Where Dems stand on Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Senate intel panel has not seen Nunes surveillance documents: lawmakers MORE (I-Maine) on addiction and justice policy and has served on several task forces related to criminal justice policy. He is a graduate of the University of Maine School of Law, where he was president of the American Constitution Society and represented children facing criminal charges as a student attorney in the Juvenile Justice Clinic. Views are his own and do not represent any organization he is or has been affiliated with.
The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.
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