The House Government Reform Committee could vote on legislation this Thursday, June 5th that contains a provision allowing the White House to spend taxpayer money on television ads to influence voters to reject drug policy reforms. If enacted, the White House could launch an unprecedented advertising campaign to influence voters with their own money, including running government-sponsored ads against state and local voter-led ballot measures. The provision is so broad it could allow the White House to use almost $1 billion in taxpayer money for partisan political purposes, which may even include government-sponsored attack ads against a candidate who takes a stand in favor of drug policy reform. A broad range of organizations - from the ACLU to the National Taxpayers Union - oppose the provision. Newspapers from the Orange County Register to the Baltimore Sun have editorialized against it. (see attached)
"Using public money to tell people how to think and feel about policy is the definition of propaganda," said Bill Piper, associate director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance. "This would be like the I.R.S. running ads against tax cut proposals and the candidates that support them."
Drug Policy experts charge that the government's propaganda campaign would come at the expense of our nation's children since the Subcommittee eliminated requirements that television, radio, and print ads provide children and their parents with contact information for prevention and drug treatment resources in their area. Civil libertarians fear the provisions will eventually be broadened to give the government the power to use taxpayer money to influence candidate races, ballot elections, and voter opinion on other issues, such as guns and abortion.
The House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources approved the controversial provision as part of HR 2086, the Office of National Drug Control Policy Reauthorization Act of 2003. As written, the provision would allow partisan radio, print and television ads if the purpose were to oppose the legalization of drug use. Since the drug czar's office believes that even modest drug policy reforms -- such as diverting substance abusers to treatment, reforming harsh sentences, and making marijuana available to AIDS and cancer patients -- promote the "legalization" of drug use, any candidate or party promoting such reforms could face a government-sponsored advertising campaign against them. The provision could also allow the drug czar to use taxpayer money to oppose local and state ballot measures that the drug czar doesn't like, as well as influence voter opinion on drug policy issues in general.
The Drug Policy Alliance is urging Members of Congress to cancel the expensive ad campaign and spend the money on drug treatment, after-school programs and other prevention programs that cost less and are proven to work. At a minimum, say experts at the Alliance, the propaganda provision should be taken out and the media campaign should be approved for only one year instead of five, consistent with recommendations of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) that 2005 funding be contingent upon improved results.
Every study of the media campaign by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has found the ads to be ineffective in reducing youth drug use. NIDA's most recent studies have found that the ad campaign not only fails to reduce drug use, it may actually make youth more likely to use marijuana in the future. According to NIDA, the ads may give youth the perception that drug use is common among their peers; and may also trigger what psychologists call "reactance" -- the more someone is told what not to do, the more they want to do it. Other experts believe the ads are so ridiculous and over-the-top that young people dismiss them outright, assuming they're being lied to.
From the start the media campaign has been embroiled in controversy. The campaign originated shortly after two state medical marijuana measures were approved by voters in 1996. Evidence shows that federal officials created the media campaign with the hopes of defeating future ballot measures. The Drug Czar's office has used this media campaign to bribe television networks to change their scripts and magazines to editorialize on certain subjects. They were accused of violating federal law by manipulating measurement criteria to make the media campaign look effective, and faced Congressional heat over their decision to maintain contracts with Ogilvy & Mather - an advertising agency that has over-billed taxpayers for its work on the media campaign. In addition, the recently canceled "drugs and terror" ads were roundly criticized from all quarters, including the Partnership for a Drug Free America, which called them off-strategy, and the Weekly Standard, which called the ads "propaganda worthy of the...;Soviet Union." The most recent anti-drug ads featuring teenage pregnancy and an accidental handgun shooting have been accused of promoting pro-life views and gun control.
Another provision in HR 2086 would allow the drug czar to divert over $10 million a year in High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) money from local and state law-enforcement agencies to federal law-enforcement agencies in areas containing states that have approved medical marijuana laws or other marijuana laws "inconsistent with the Controlled Substances Act." The provision would not only divert money away from fighting heroin and methamphetamine drug trafficking to arresting medical marijuana patients and their caregivers, it would punish local police for legislative developments they have no control over. If enacted, local and state law-enforcement agencies in California and other states could lose millions in anti-drug funding. The California Narcotic Officers' Association opposes the provision.
"It is just plain foolish and cruel to divert money away from fighting major crime syndicates to use it to arrest medical marijuana patients and their caregivers", said Bill Piper.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) recently ruled that the Hatch Act, a federal law designed to keep federal officials from campaigning at taxpayer expense, does not apply to ballot measure campaigns. OSC ruled that Drug Czar John Walters could legally use the power of his office to campaign against local and state drug-related ballot measures he doesn't like, including spending taxpayer money on campaign trips. OSC even ruled John Walters could use the threat of withholding or giving federal funds to state agencies to coerce state officials into opposing certain ballot measures. The ruling, combined with the new power Congress is considering giving the Office of National Drug Control Policy, would give the drug czar unprecedented ability to interfere with local and state elections. Organizations and Newspaper Editorials Against HR 2086
National Taxpayers Union: "NTU is deeply concerned that the precedent of allowing for partisan campaigning by ONDCP officials would inevitably lead to campaigning by IRS officials, EPA officials, and by officials from the myriad of federal agencies that have a direct stake in the electoral process...;Forcing taxpayers to fund the salaries of public officials to campaign, not to mention the costs of campaign advertising and other political activities, is unconscionable."
American Civil Liberties Union: "[Provisions in HR 2086] allow the Director [of ONDCP] to use part of his budget to engage in partisan political activity and weigh in on one side of a state ballot initiative. If, despite the federal maneuvering and influx of dollars, the people nonetheless vote to allow the use of medical marijuana, the Director can then redirect some of his funds to prosecute the patients and doctors who are breaking no state law. Surely, these federal dollars could be better spent targeting major drug syndicates instead of those who are suffering, and those who are trying to ease suffering."
California Narcotic Officers' Association: "Make no mistake, the California Narcotic Officers' Association strongly opposed Proposition 215 -- the so-called ‘medical' marijuana initiative -- when it was on the ballot. CNOA strongly believes, however, that it is a mistake to punish other drug enforcement activity in a state merely because that state has a Proposition 215-like law on its book."
Taxpayers for Commonsense: "The White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) has spent more than $1 billion on the anti-drug ad campaign whose only measurable effect has been that the ads may cause some teens to smoke more dope. Despite no evidence that the ads are effective, Congress is about to authorize nearly $1 billion more for ONDCP to burn through in the next five years."
Orange County Register: "In a democratic (or republican) society, the core idea is that the government is supposed to work for the people. To have the permanent bureaucracy using the people's money to influence the people's votes is manifestly unfair and thoroughly backward. We don't know whether a move to give the drug czar a billion-dollar political slush fund reflects insecurity over what the people might do if not properly instructed by their betters or the simple arrogance of the longtime political-bureaucratic operator. Whatever the motivation, this is bad policy."
Los Angeles Times: "The idea of taking away money that local police need to control traffickers who distribute the crack cocaine that turns many street people violent and using it to prosecute doctors helping out dying or chronically pain-ridden patients is not just useless; it is harmful...;Many of the House Republicans pushing HR 2086 campaigned on promises to keep Washington from interfering with how professionals (such as doctors and business leaders) do their jobs, from meddling with states' rights and from restricting individual liberty. By voting for HR 2086, they would be trampling on all three."
Baltimore Sun: "The federal government has no business using tax dollars to help wage such lobbying campaigns, or to punish states that don't fall into line."
St. Petersburg Times: "The tactic of using the people's money to influence their views and election results has a familiar ring. It follows a script written by the corrupt regimes of Africa and Latin America...; There should be no compromising here. Once we allow the executive branch to use tax money to influence voters, we will have opened a dangerous door."
Honolulu Star Bulletin: "Republicans in Congress are joining Attorney General John Ashcroft in trying to bludgeon Hawaii and other states into scrapping laws that allow marijuana to be used for medical purposes. Legislation being considered by a House committee would strip federal drug-enforcement money from police in states with medical-marijuana laws and undoubtedly spend it instead on prosecution of such cases in those states. States should be free to allow marijuana to be used for therapeutic purposes without federal interference."