ONDCP's Bogus Budget Talk

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January 24, 2014 - By Michael Collins

Having endured long uncertainty over funding levels for the coming year, the announcement that Congress passed legislation to fund the government through 2014 was greeted with joy by many government agencies last week. The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), which oversees the Administration’s domestic and international counterdrug efforts, was particularly pleased with the news, releasing a blog post trumpeting their success in receiving funding for so-called “drug policy reform” programs.

While ONDCP has been eager to advertise changes in rhetoric, the policies have not matched the prose. Although they have opted to talk of “drug policy reform” instead of the war on drugs, the budget demonstrates that ONDCP remains committed to the failed prohibition policies of the past forty years.

To be sure, the Drug Policy Alliance supports some of the programs touted by ONDCP in its blog post, not least of all the Second Chance Act. The problem is that ONDCP’s “budget highlights” only tell half of the story. In reality, the agency fails to disclose the excessive spending levels for many of the drug war programs requested by ONDCP and the Obama administration in its 2014 National Drug Control Budget.

For starters, ONDCP’s blog does not mention the whopping $2 billion given to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), an agency synonymous with the failed drug war and riddled with abuses of power – a fact pointed out in a letter to Congress last September calling for oversight hearings on DEA’s many controversial actions. ONDCP’s blog also neglects to mention the more than $1 billion allocated in order to continue funding the drug war internationally, in places like Mexico and Honduras, where the U.S.-exported drug war model has so patently and tragically failed.

Overall, ONDCP did very well for itself in this budget, receiving an allocation of $22.75 million – a higher figure than the agency itself had initially been requested. This is despite the release of a March 2013 report which pointed out that ONDCP and the Obama administration “have not made progress toward achieving most of the goals articulated in [their] National Drug Control Strategy,” and ONDCP was guilty of having many “duplicative programs.”

Moreover, recent changes in marijuana policy in some states, which ONDCP has vociferously objected to, should mean that ONDCP’s budget is significantly reduced. The Obama administration, in an August 2013 DOJ memo, has affirmed that it will not intervene (under certain conditions) in states that implement significant regulation of legal marijuana access. The President himself said last week, when speaking of Colorado and Washington’s legalization initiatives, that “it’s important for it to go forward because it’s important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished.” He also noted that, “middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do,” contradicting the ONDCP claim that “there are very few people in state or Federal prison for marijuana-related crimes.”

All this should mean that ONDCP receives less funding to pursue anti-marijuana campaigns in those states with some form of legal marijuana, and ONDCP no longer needs to coordinate state and local law enforcement to pursue marijuana eradication, as appropriators have previously instructed. However, Congress, in all its wisdom, decided to give them more money than they’d asked for.

Perhaps, one day, ONDCP will release a budget that truly advances drug policy reform grounded in science, evidence, and research.  Until that time, the least ONDCP can do is be honest with American taxpayers about the realities of wasteful drug war spending.

Michael Collins is a policy manager in the Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of National Affairs.

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