The Office of National Drug Control Policy is on the list of small agencies the White House is considering eliminating to try to save money, as the New York Times reported last week. The proposal comes at a crucial time for drug policy in the United States. More than 50,000 Americans died of a drug overdose in 2015, including more than 30,000 people who died from taking an opioid drug such as a prescription painkiller or heroin, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In the last 15 years, the number of Americans who die of overdoses every year has more than doubled.
The ONDCP writes the country’s overall anti-drug strategy. It’s responsible for coordinating the efforts of all federal agencies that work on drugs, whether it’s investigating drug trafficking, offering users clean syringes and addiction treatment, or writing anti-drug advertisements aimed at teenagers. Its own budget of $1.8 billion constitutes just 1 percent of America’s drug-control spending, but its director reviews the spending of dozens of other agencies.
So what will happen if the ONDCP disappears? Pacific Standard talked to several experts and found answers ranging from “not much will change” to “it’ll slow progress on preventing overdoses.” Nearly everyone was surprised at the idea. Nobody thought that cutting the agency would help reduce overdoses, and most didn’t think it would save taxpayers a significant amount of money.
It’s important to note that, if President Donald Trump decides he definitely wants the ONDCP on the chopping block, Congress still needs to agree. So it’s unclear, for now, the likelihood that the office will be eliminated. Further, many important questions remain unanswered, including: Who, if anyone, will take over the office’s activities if it’s cut? Which activities will come to a halt altogether? The only thing certain is that it would be a big shake-up.
On the worried side is David Mineta, a former deputy director at the ONDCP under the Obama administration, during which the office gained a reputation for approaching drug use as a public-health problem. “In the midst of all these people dying from overdoses, it’s just the wrong time to lose that coordination role,” Mineta says. “What I really worry about is that out of some thought of trying to cut the budget and reduce spending, we would be shooting ourselves in the foot.” Without a department to make sure that national anti-drug efforts don’t contradict each other, or overlap wastefully, Mineta thinks that anti-drug work in America would become “more inefficient, more ineffective.”
“Drug users are increasingly seen as people, in our communities and in our families, who need to be helped, rather than as vicious degenerates from whom we need to be protected.”
On the other hand, Eric E. Sterling—a lawyer who worked on the legislation that created the ONDCP, in 1988 — doesn’t think much will change. The office’s functions could be split among other people and agencies, he says. The attorney general could coordinate the nation’s drug-control efforts, for example. The biggest undertaking ONDCP funds directly is the High Intensity Trafficking Areas program, a Drug Enforcement Administration project that aims to catch illicit drug manufacturers and sellers. The DEA could lobby for someone else to pay for that.
Sterling thinks one of the ONDCP’s most important contributions is not in managing or funding, but in changing the conversation in America around drug users. Barack Obama’s appointees for director all emphasized compassion and evidence-based treatment for people with substance use disorders. Since 2014, the amount of money that American agencies have spent on addiction treatment and prevention has grown, after years of stagnation. (Money for enforcement stayed the same.) “Drug users are increasingly seen as people, in our communities and in our families, who need to be helped, rather than as vicious degenerates from whom we need to be protected,” Sterling says.
Without the ONDCP, “the conversation would continue, but it would not have quite the same imprimatur from the government,” he says.
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which opposes punitive drug laws, agrees that the ONDCP sets the tone for drug policy across the country. “It’s essentially a bully pulpit,” Nadelmann says. His take on its possible demise? “If Trump’s volunteering to abolish the office, I say, ‘Go for it.’” Trump’s statements on the campaign trail about supporting law and order suggest to Nadelmann that the president wouldn’t support the policies the Drug Policy Alliance would want anyway.
A few last questions: Did the ONDCP do a good job in its lifetime? Is eliminating it the efficient thing to do? In 2016, the non-partisan Government Accountability Office found that the ONDCP had made limited progress toward its goals of reducing tobacco, alcohol, and other drug use among Americans of all ages. Yet the director who prepared the report doesn’t blame the ONDCP. “When we were talking about the lack of progress in achieving the goals that ONDCP set out,” Diana Maurer says, “I think it’s largely a reflection of just how difficult it is to move the needle on some of these goals.”
Whether getting rid of the ONDCP saves money depends on what happens afterwards—and on who assumes its duties and projects after it’s gone. For Maurer, it’s clear that somebody has to. “If the executive branch, in conjunction with the Congress, wants to organize itself to combat the nation’s drug problems, you would need some kind of mechanism to coordinate between all the different agencies,” she says. “Whether there’s an ONDCP or not.”