Budget Document Seeks Almost 95 Percent Cut for ‘Drug Czar’ Office

By Steven Nelson
May 5, 2017

The White House “drug czar” would see an almost 95 percent reduction in its office’s funding under a budget proposal drafted by the Office of Management and Budget. The cuts would eliminate the two large grant programs managed by the Office of National Drug Control, along with a substantial reduction in staff salaries. The 70-employee ONDCP was established in the late 1980s to guide federal anti-drug policies and with a national opioid epidemic its defenders say it's needed more than ever. But in the draft budget document shared with U.S. News, the OMB takes aim at what it calls “duplicative and burdensome administrative tasks.”

The proposal would eliminate funding for regional law enforcement task forces called High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas that were allocated $254 million in fiscal 2017. It would also eliminate Drug-Free Communities grants, previously funded at $100 million. The HIDTA program “is duplicative of other Federal efforts,” the document says, and the DFC program, aimed at preventing youth drug use, is “duplicative of other Federal programs.” Funding for ONDCP salaries and expenses would fall from $19 million to $12 million.

The document says the changes “will allow ONDCP to focus on identifying priorities and coordinating interagency efforts, particularly in policy development and implementation, in order to better address the top drug threats, including the opioid epidemic.”

ONDCP acting director Rich Baum outlined the proposal in a Friday morning email to staff. He said he's lobbying against the proposal and “would encourage you not to panic, since these events are still unfolding.” Baum’s email comes after the unexpected news this week that Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., would not be nominated to lead the office. Marino, who had seen scandals from his past surface in the press, attributed the news to a family member's illness but said he would remain in Congress. Defenders of ONDCP and its primary grant programs say they should be retained, and expressed optimism that members of Congress would block the move.

The proposal by OMB comes after years of tension between the office and the ONDCP, which has unique budgetary authority to craft the spending of other agencies. In the past, OMB has sought to move the grant program to other agencies. “ONDCP is unique in its authority. Sometimes that bumps up against other agencies such as OMB,” says Regina LaBelle, chief of staff at the ONDCP during the Obama administration. LaBelle says the Drug-Free Communities grants in particular are worth keeping.

“There’s been a lot of complaints about the lack of evidence-based prevention dollars,” she says. “This is really one of the only programs left that gives money to local communities to prevent drug and alcohol abuse.” Sue Thau, a public policy consultant representing Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, which guides groups that receive grants, points to some research showing grant recipients have reduced teen drug use.

DFC grantee work includes staging prescription take-back efforts, raising awareness of issues that exist and convening in-school assistance, Thau says.

“We’re the front end of the continuum” in seeking prevention of drug use, she says. “In the middle of an opioid epidemic when you have a program that can dramatically reduce use of opioids, it doesn't make sense to put that on the chopping block.” HIDTAs, meanwhile, are well-established, though they have taken controversial stances such as opposition to marijuana legalization using questionable statistics. Bill Piper, senior director for national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, says he agrees with the budget proposal.

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