Blog Post

Tennessee Congressman Steve Cohen Looks to "Unmuzzle the Drug Czar"

Maggie Taylor

President Obama’s recent remarks on marijuana have been getting a lot of press. By admitting that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol, the President has become a powerful voice in favor of re-evaluating our nation’s current prohibition on marijuana. And yet the Office of National Drug Control Policy – the chief federal agency in charge of U.S. drug strategy – remains committed to promoting the status quo.

The question is, why?

It’s a little-known fact that the Office of National Drug Control Policy is legally barred from supporting the legalization of drugs. In fact, they are required to oppose any and all attempts to legalize the use of any Schedule I drug (including marijuana) for either medical or non-medical use. This provision means that ONDCP isn’t even allowed to study the potential impacts of marijuana legalization, its well-established medical benefits, or states that regulate marijuana like alcohol. And ONDCP is the only federal agency restricted in this way.

Congressman Steven Cohen is aiming to fix this. He’s introduced the Unmuzzle the Drug Czar Act of 2014, which would repeal the provisions requiring ONDCP to oppose legalization in all forms. This law would finally allow ONDCP to study the legalization of medical marijuana, as well as the implementation of Colorado and Washington’s laws to regulate marijuana like alcohol.

It’s important to note that the ban doesn’t just apply to studying legalization; it is so far-reaching that ONDCP employees – including the Drug Czar himself, who is nominated by the President – are unable to speak freely on marijuana legalization. This ban likely prevents ONDCP staff from making scientifically factual statements in Congressional hearings.

Take, for instance, Deputy Drug Czar Michael Botticelli’s statements at a recent House Oversight Committee hearing, where he repeatedly refused to admit that marijuana was less harmful than heroin. Perhaps if his hands weren’t legally tied, he could admit what we all know to be true: that heroin is responsible for the preventable deaths of too many people, while marijuana overdose has never been known to kill anyone.

At the same hearing, Congressman Cohen aggressively questioned Botticelli on the muzzle law, asking whether ONDCP would support efforts to repeal it. Botticelli waffled in his response. Whether Botticelli’s response indicates a lack of interest in science-based drug policy or discomfort in expressing an opinion is impossible to know.

Regardless, we can’t to have an open, honest debate about marijuana policy when the office charged with setting drug control priorities is prohibited from even considering alternatives to the failed war on pot. Government agencies should base their positions on science, not politics, and their employees shouldn’t be prohibited from speaking the truth.

Maggie Taylor is a policy associate with the Drug Policy Alliance.

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