ASHINGTON — With the US opioid crisis the subject of increased political focus, advocates in the recovery community had been quietly hoping President Trump might elevate the White House “drug czar” to his Cabinet. Now they are mobilizing to ensure the drug czar’s office won’t be eliminated entirely.
A recent report that the White House may propose axing the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy has sparked a scramble among leaders in the recovery community and among law enforcement. The National Fraternal Order of Police has already prepared a letter to Trump urging him to reject any proposal to eliminate the office. Advocates in the recovery community have drafted their own letter expressing support for the office.
The Office of National Drug Control Policy — established nearly 30 years ago and charged with coordinating drug policies across US agencies — has long been a proposed target for cuts by staff at the Office of Management and Budget seeking ways to reduce the White House budget. There is also some evidence that, even as the office’s budget has increased, drug use in America has been stable or even gone up.
Opponents of efforts to eliminate the office have argued that any savings would be minimal because so much of its funding goes to other agencies and to programs that would likely continue in its absence. Some have pushed to have the drug czar made a member of the Cabinet again, as was the case under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
The White House declined to comment on its plans or the recent report in the New York Times.
Trump has been vocal about his desire to address the US opioid crisis, a position highlighted by the National Fraternal Order of Police in its letter to the president.
“The ONDCP plays a vital role in coordinating a national strategy to fight drug trafficking and reduce illegal drug use,” the group’s president, Chuck Canterbury, wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by STAT. “Without the ONDCP to help law enforcement agencies at every level to work together, we would have no way to set and coordinate a national strategy.”
If the White House does propose eliminating the Office of National Drug Control Policy, it would likely do so when it releases its budget blueprint in mid-March. But it would also likely face opposition on Capitol Hill, from the recovery community, and from law enforcement — a powerful triumvirate, as the crisis has become one of the most politically potent health issues in the country.
Some are skeptical it will come to that, given how often the issue has arisen in the past.
“That was a pretty perennial topic,” said David Murray, who worked in the office under George W. Bush and Barack Obama and is now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. He said he believed it was “premature” to know the Trump administration’s intentions.
A Senate Republican aide following addiction issues closely also expressed skepticism.
“I have a hard time seeing this get off the ground,” said the aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Created in 1988, the office is seen by some as an artifact of the “war on drugs,” which doesn’t reflect the changing paradigm that casts drug addiction as a public health issue as much as a criminal justice problem.
Obama notably appointed somebody with a history of substance abuse, Michael Botticelli, to be his second ONDCP director. But he had also demoted the position from his cabinet in 2009, a move that Murray said “weakened the office” and that recovery advocates want to reverse.
The argument for keeping the office, as advanced by Murray and the national police group, is that it provides a clearinghouse for the anti-addiction efforts that span dozens of federal, state, and local agencies. Its director, as Murray put it, “expresses the president’s leadership” on the issue.
“There is no single place that spans across such a wide horizon,” Murray said, from public health to national security.