If you care about drug addiction, don’t cut the Office of National Drug Control Policy
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Like a pesky little sibling, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) has been annoying its sister agency, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), ever since Congress established ONDCP in 1988. 

As the only federal agency other than OMB to enjoy wide budgetary authority, including the ability to decertify the budgets of other cabinet agencies, OMB bureaucrats have targeted ONDCP throughout successive administrations. 

But despite this rivalry, even I — a former ONDCP staffer who served during the Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama administrations — was surprised at the recent news the Trump Administration might seriously propose to drastically slash the budget and programs of our nation’s primary coordinating anti-drug agency. At a time of an opioid crisis that is stealing tens of thousands of lives each year and rapidly rising marijuana use, now is the wrong time to hamstring the agency primarily responsible for reducing drug use and its consequences in America. 

This isn’t the first time budget hawks have come after ONDCP. But when it comes to supporting the agency’s mission, wisdom has always prevailed. 

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As part of his pledge to cut red tape across government, President Clinton slashed the drug office in 1993, only to dramatically reverse course in 1996 in response to rising drug abuse rates and pressure from Congress and the public to pay more attention to the drug issue (Clinton made amends by tripling the office’s staff, appointing a four-star general to run it, and elevating the office to cabinet status).

 

Since then, Members of Congress and Presidents from both sides of the aisle, grappling with a complex public policy challenge and a long list of programs spanning more than a dozen different federal agencies, have known better than to gut the drug office. 

As a coordinating body for the nation’s drug control effort, ONDCP has always had the unique ability to plan, elevate, and execute the vision of the president when it comes to drug policy.

The programs ONDCP lead have modernized public health and safety initiatives and drove the push to expand treatment for people with substance use disorders. The office rang the alarm on the opioid crisis long before any other federal agency made it a priority. 

And because of ONDCP, drug prevention has moved on from didactic classroom exercises to a science of teaching life-skills and changing environmental norms based on local data and community capacity. (Think liquor store zoning laws or community activism against open-air drug markets.)

In addition to promoting smarter approaches to drug policy, the agency has also been a money saver for taxpayers. The agency cuts down on waste and duplication, identifying ineffective programs and taking action. 

For example, if a drug prevention program was proposed out of the Department of Health and Human Services, it made sense for the Department of Education to know about it, and not waste time developing its own initiative.

Of course, there’s always room for improvement when it comes to our nation’s drug policies. While federal treatment spending now outnumbers enforcement spending, recovery programs still need to be expanded. 

Treatment must also be made available to all who need it. Public health and criminal justice systems must also be better linked by expanding initiatives that divert non-violent offenders into treatment instead of prison like drug courts and probation reform programs. 

But without ONDCP, these reforms will be slow to take hold, if they do at all.

Drug use and its consequences cost our nation an enormous $200 billion in annual social costs and continue to be the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S., having recently overtaken gunshot wounds and traffic accidents. 

If OMB gets its way, our nation’s drug problem will get worse. The office is critical to coordination, and its programs represent major tools to stem the suffering that results from addiction. 

Cutting ONDCP and the programs it funds and leads — is exactly the wrong move at the wrong time.

 

Kevin A. Sabet, PhD, worked in the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) for the Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama Administrations, and was the only political appointee in both the Bush and Obama Administrations. He left ONDCP in 2011 as the Senior Advisor to the Director.


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