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Cascade of Reports Condemn Drug Czar's Office

Jag Davies,
Drug Law Reform Project
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October 21, 2008

With the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s five-year reauthorization approaching in 2010, there’s never been a better time to scrutinize the White House’s “agency of accountability” in the nation’s counterproductive drug war.

Without a doubt, the ONDCP needs new metrics for measuring the success of our nation’s drug policy. Rather than measuring success based on slight fluctuations in drug use, the primary measure of ONDCP’s effectiveness should be the reduction of drug-related harm. If ONDCP is reauthorized, it should be charged with reducing problems associated with drug use itself (overdose, addiction, disease transmission) and problems associated with drug prohibition (over-incarceration, collateral sanctions, loss of civil liberties, racial disparities in enforcement, prosecution and sentencing).

Even by ONDCP’s own misguided measures of success, it’s failing miserably. Several recent reports underscore ONDCP’s breathtaking corruption, dysfunction and lack of accountability:

  • As reported in the Washington Post, a new report released by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform describes how the White House orchestrated over 300 taxpayer-funded trips to support endangered Republican candidates in 2006. Karl Rove called ONDCP director John Walters (aka the “drug czar”) a “superstar” after Walters announced half-million-dollar grants at news conferences with two Republican congressmen and a Republican senator.

    The report says that government agencies used taxpayer funds for at least 303 out-of-town trips by senior Bush appointees meant to lend prestige or bring federal grants to 99 politically endangered Republicans that year – despite the fact that federal law prohibits the use of public funds or resources for partisan activities and specifically forbids ONDCP from any participation in a federal election campaign.

    Funny timing, as ONDCP happens to be stepping up its usual efforts to spread lies and interfere with Michigan’s Proposition 1. This November, Michigan voters will decide whether their state will become the first in the Midwest and the 14th nationwide to pass a law protecting medical marijuana patients, and ONDCP isn’t taking any chances that there will be an inconvenient outbreak of democracy. (Visit the ACLU’s ballot initiative action page to alert friends in states that will be voting on civil liberties issues this November, such as Michigan’s Proposition 1.)

  • As reported by ABC News, a congressionally mandated study conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication has demonstrated the utter failure of the National Youth Anti-Drug Campaign, launched in the late 1990s and at a cost of over $1 billion. The study, which appears in the December 2008 issue of American Journal of Public Health, was based on four rounds of interviews conducted between 1999 and 2004, each involving about 5,000 to 8,000 youths between the ages of 9 and 18 years.

    “Despite extensive funding, governmental agency support, the employment of professional advertising and public relations firms, and consultation with subject-matter experts, the evidence from the evaluation suggests that the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign had no favorable effects on youths’ behavior and that it may even have had an unintended and undesirable effect on drug cognitions and use,” the report said.

    One of the study’s more interesting findings is that some youth who saw the campaign’s ads were actually more likely to use drugs.

    “Youths who saw the campaign ads took from them the message that their peers were using marijuana,” the report said. “In turn, those who came to believe that their peers were using marijuana were more likely to initiate use themselves.”

  • According to a report released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), “Drug-Free Communities Support Program: Stronger Internal Controls and Other Actions Needed to Better Manage the Grant-Making Process,” the ONDCP “did not always adhere to applicable federal internal control standards, statutory requirements, and other guidance during the grant-making process.” Apparently, ONDCP’s procedures for determining grant eligibility for the Drug-Free Communities Support Program resulted in the failure to “show that only eligible coalitions received grants in accordance with the Drug-Free Communities Support Program’s statutory framework.”

    In the fall of 2005, ONDCP cut funding for 63 Drug-Free Communities grantees and put 88 others on probation, despite the fact that many had scored highly during peer reviews conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). In an October 2005 letter to ONDCP director John Walters, U.S. Senators Joseph Biden (D-Del.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) said that the review process used by the White House agency “relied more on qualitative and subjective data than it did on the peer-review scores that have guided the decision making process in past years.”

  • These reports come on the heels of a critical review of government data by George Mason University senior fellow Jon Gettman chronicling ONDCP’s ineffectiveness, manipulation of statistics and faulty claims-making. Ian Thompson from the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office described Gettman’s report in this recent blog post.

Looking ahead to the potential opportunities presented by a new presidential administration, U.S. Representative Dennis Kucinich’s (D-OH) placement as Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s Domestic Policy Subcommittee (which has oversight power over ONDCP), and ONDCP reauthorization coming up in 2010, the outlook for reforming ONDCP is looking brighter than ever before.

But don’t hold your breath – there’s plenty of ways in which your help is needed to implement sensible drug policies today.

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