ALCOHOLISM & DRUG ABUSE WEEKLY -- January 29, 2018

ONDCP on the chopping block — again

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This month, it was revealed that the White House last year appointed the unknown Taylor Weyeneth to be deputy chief of staff at the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), and that the 24-year-old former law student whose only job experience was working on the Trump presidential campaign had “inconsistencies” on his résumé.  Over the past couple of weeks, Weyeneth was demoted from deputy chief of staff to his former position as White House liaison to the ONDCP, and then, on Jan. 24, quit.  Acting director and longtime ONDCP staffer Rich Baum, whose competence is unquestionedby anyone, remains in charge.  The Weyeneth story, reported by The Washington Post in several installments, was a good indication of the value the Trump administration, which last year had planned to gut the ONDCP (see ADAW, Feb. 27 2017), puts on the office.   Eventually, the efforts of ONDCP supporters kept the agency, which is within the White House, in the budget.  Then on Jan. 18, Politico reported that the ONDCP was slated once again for elimination, with a plan to slash 95 percent of the budget.

The High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas grant program, administered by the ONDCP, would be moved to the Department of Justice, and the Drug Free Communities grant program would be moved to the Department of Health and Human Services.   The White House still hasn’t appointed a permanent director of the ONDCP.  “I’m baffled at the idea of cutting the office or reducing it significantly and taking away its programs in the middle of an epidemic,” Regina LaBelle, who served as ONDCP chief of staff during the Obama administration, told Politico.  

    Congress, sign-on letter

Members of Congress are expected to push back against the move. 

“The Senate and House champions of the ONDCP who protested the administration’s cuts and disempowerment of the agency were critical [to the ONDCP’s survival] last year,” Bob Weiner, former spokesman for the ONDCP and the House Narcotics Committee, told ADAW last week. “They made the difference, and could again be instrumental.”  Carol McDaid, principal with Capitol Decisions, noted that last year was not the first time efforts have been made to defund the ONDCP. “Given the current death rate in the country associated with addiction, my hope is that Congress will continue to fund the ONDCP,” she told ADAW last week.  Meanwhile, a sign-on letter from stakeholders in the field is being circulated, under the organization of the Addiction Policy Forum. Last year, a similar sign-on letter, organized by Kevin Sabet, Ph.D., former ONDCP staffer and president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, was forwarded to the Office of Management and Budget with more than 200 signatures (see ADAW, February 27, 2017). “I think it certainly helped with the effort, as it showed broad support for the office,” said Sabet, when asked if the sign-on letter had an effect in keeping the ONDCP alive last year. “I think it’s easy to forget how many different groups all agree on this issue,” said Sabet, who is also an affiliated fellow with Yale University. “My hope is that it does the trick again — the office and its functions are critical to advance public health and safety.”

Weiner was on the House floor during the creation of the ONDCP in 1988 when then-Rep. Charles Rangel (D-New York), chairman of the Select Narcotics Committee, had drafted the letters that resulted in the endorsement of the new agency. “The whole reason we created the ONDCP was to be a coordinating force with power in the government, and to bring together 20 agencies, many reluctant to be involved in drug control,” said Weiner.

"Now, at a time when heroin and opioids are surging, with more than 60,000 dying from overdoses last year, it’s harmful to reduce the ONDCP’s power,” said Weiner, whose op-ed on the matter appeared in The Washington Post last week . “This is exactly when the agency should get maximum support from the White House.” 

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Op-ed in The Washington Posthttps://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/americas-drug-policy-office-deserves-real-expertise-at-the-top/2018/01/17/412b23c4-fae0-11e7-9b5d-bbf0da31214d_story.html